While the two may have admitted to having had a complicated work relationship in the past, this hasn’t stopped Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games: Mockingbird) and director David O. Russell (American Hustle) from teaming up again for Joy. The film very loosely follows the real life of Joy Mangano, inventor of the Miracle Mop who went on to become a home-shopping sensation, although Russell takes a large serving of liberties in wringing out every moment of potential drama in what is his first female-centric film.
The film follows Joy (Lawrence), a young woman, who while once facing a lifetime of creative possibilities, has instead found herself now trapped within a dysfunctional family as the linchpin that holds them all together. There’s her hopeless soap opera obsessed mother (Virginia Madsen) who never strays from her bed post divorce, her in-love-with-love father (Robert De Niro), the resentful sister (Elisabeth Rohm) left to run the family business in the shadows, her ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez) who refuses to move out of the basement in his mission to become the next Tom Jones, and then her two children who require the least supervision of the bunch. But the one force of continual support for Joy comes in the form of her grandmother, Mimi (Diane Ladd), who appears the only person able to see how truly special she is and that she is destined for greater things in life.
While Joy struggles to reclaim her life, she begins to see her creativity that was once smothered by adulthood reemerge in her invention of a self-wringing mop. Yet, it isn’t until her father’s date, Trudi (Isabella Rossellini) arrives, who he found rather deceivingly through a widow’s dating service, that things truly begin to change. After convincing Trudi to invest her late-husband’s money into the idea, Joy is set on a path of success to sell her ‘miracle’ mop, although faces every challenge possible along the way.
There’s a lot that can be said about Lawrence’s performance: strong, focused, determined, but it’s in the subtleties of her depiction that she really shines. She’s perfected the ability to express emotion while remaining quiet, and her silent struggle is the film’s real draw, although falling just a bit short of her Academy Award-winning turn in Silver Linings Playbook. It would be easy to call out Lawrence as being an ill fit for a role as a woman caged in by suburbia and left to essentially be a downtrodden single mother, especially seeing she’s continuously labeled as being one of Hollywood’s hottest stars, but it works here because Joy is a character who finds her self stuck within a future that was never meant to be for her. Joy is meant to stand out as the exception, which makes Lawrence the perfect candidate.
It’s in the film around Lawrence though, that we begin to see the loose seams appear. At best the film seems undercooked with characters that are rather one note and plot lines that feel chunkily pieced together to get from start to finish. Rohm’s (Stalker) aggressive aunt character’s resentment towards her sister is never explored beyond subtle hints of jealously leaving things too vague, while Joy’s unconventional relationship with her ex-husband is deflated by Russell either believing less is more or not knowing how to fulfill its potential in general. There’s also the rather weird arc for Joy, which mismatches her childhood creativity that’s depicted in an almost fairytale like style, as being fulfilled with her creation of a mop.
The greatest drawback though, is the films desire to walk between being a quirky comedy and a gritty drama. While characters find themselves in strange situations and spout offbeat humour, there’s a direct clash with the more dramatic elements, mainly Lawrence’s performance. Separately, both are entertaining, but there’s a clear discord in the earnest moments of Joy’s story about her underdog struggle and the eccentric wackiness that surrounds her.
The film does sport a rather great supporting cast, with De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook) and Madsen (Crazy Kind of Love) playing the aggressively separated parents with some needed zest. Rossellini (Enemy) and Ramirez (Zero Dark Thirty) both make great matches for Lawrence to spar against when not working together, although it’s Ladd’s first appearance in a feature film in a number of years that’s most welcome. There’s also Bradley Cooper’s (Limitless) shopping-channel executive, who while appearing only briefly and acts mainly as the catalyst to move the story along, proves to be one of the more interesting parts of the film.
While the marketing campaign has been slightly confusing with Lawrence toting aviators and wielding a shotgun, suggesting a more action orientated film that it is evidently not, it may provide a much welcome break in what is a summer filled with a rather large number of male-centric films.