David O. Russell Feature

Joy Review: Time Issues Abound

Monday, January 04, 2016 Rob Samuelson


Director: David O. Russell
Writers: David O. Russell, Annie Mumolo
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, Édgar Ramírez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini
Rating: Two and a half stars out of five
Available in theaters now.

Joy is entertaining. It has flavor and attitude and humor. It even subverts the expectations built by a century's worth of cinematic history regarding romantic relationships. It features solid performances. It is not, however, a good movie at its core. It could have been a good movie, though. It would have required the creative team to abandon – for one project – one of the most lucrative working relationships of the decade, a change in the emotional through-line of the film, and more attention paid to the timeline for it to work better. These are nearly impossible decisions to make in reality, and it is understandable if disappointing that David O. Russell and company were unable to do what is best for the story.

A primary issue at hand is not tailoring the story to fit Jennifer Lawrence's casting as the title character, the inventor of the Miracle Mop you will recognize if you have spent any time watching QVC or the Home Shopping Network in the last 25 years. She and Russell have worked together on three straight movies, and it is, by all accounts, a partnership they wish to continue for as long as possible. That is good. It should be applauded, because they work well together. Heck, they even work well together here, in the moment. Lawrence provides a frazzled, frustrated, determined person to the audience. Joy is someone to root for, someone whose clawing out of poverty is right in the sweet spot of the American dream story we love so much. But she is a young 25 years old, a fact that is notable as Lawrence just finished the Hunger Games series a month before Joy's release – her Katniss Everdeen is, at oldest, a believable 18 in the final installment.

There is nothing wrong with changing ages in adaptations, but when a filmmaker chooses to do so, the rest of the work needs to shift to accommodate it. And Joy does not.

Joy's life, as a divorced mother of two, with her ex-husband (Édgar Ramírez) continuing to live in the basement, her soap opera-obsessed mother (Virginia Madsen) in another room, and her grandmother (Diane Ladd) floating around the house, is one that has a doom settled on top of it. This is a broken in, broken down setting, a dysfunctional operation that nonetheless feels like it has gone on for decades. When Joy's grandmother tries to teach her a lesson, in Lawrence's first appearance in the film, about how there's still time (but not much) for her to do something with her life, it rings false. That's because, as scripted, Ladd's “Mimi” (Joy's name for her grandma) is speaking with a woman in her mid-30s who hasn't seen her hopes and dreams come to fruition, a woman who is beginning to feel the creakiness of time, as the real-life basis for the film, Joy Mangano, was at the time depicted in the story. She is not merely tired and longing for something else out of life, something better. She worries not that her best days are behind her, but that the potential for her best days are behind her. The script reflects that, but Lawrence's presence does not, no matter how strong she is at conveying something resembling those emotions. The simplest solution here would be to cast someone whose age and life experiences more closely resemble those of Mangano, but if Lawrence is the lynchpin to getting the movie made, Russell and his team should have reworked things. Instead of everyone in Joy's life speaking about her like her time has past, as they would to someone clearly in mature adulthood, there should be more worry about her being unable to change her course. Less “you have not lived up to your potential,” more “you may not live up to your potential.” It is a small but crucial difference between those mentalities that unravels the film.

Other, lesser issues pop up throughout Joy, like her relationship with her ex-husband. The budding deep friendship between the two former warring spouses is Joy's biggest strength, with each Lawrence and Ramírez showing a well of compromise and small acts of helpfulness throughout the film. There are weird bumps in the road, including a parking lot confrontation that feels like a leftover piece of an otherwise removed subplot. Overall, though, this could have formed the backbone of Joy's transformation to world-conquering inventor.

The same goes for how this movie treats time. Russell shows a couple iterations of Joy's crayon-drawn designs for her mop and a couple shots of her figuring it out, but this is a film about an inventor. They are people who work forever to perfect things. The process of invention is small, gradual change, with maybe a Eureka moment in there from time to time. It is not a humongous part of Joy as currently constructed, nor is its chronology. The whole thing appears to take place in December, which gives it the feeling of “one kooky week before Christmas that changed Joy's life,” without accounting for the months and years it took for her mop to take off, for her meetings with QVC to turn into a spot on the air, so on and so forth. It's fine to condense time, but the monochromatic nature of the narrative serves to confuse rather than streamline how this story took place.

It's not all disappointing choices in Joy, of course. Like Russell's own The Fighter before it, it understands the chaos of a multigenerational family living in close quarters, with the infighting and broken (intentionally or not) tchotchkes flying everywhere. It is perfectly set up for a lame, overcooked romantic subplot but it happily avoids going down that path. It gets an embarrassing, dark monologue out of Robert De Niro in the form of a wedding toast. None of these things are enough to overcome the larger structural issues in Joy, but they make a watchable experience. 

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