Genre: Comedy, Drama
Directed by: David O. Russell
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, Édgar Ramírez
Those of you suffering from the post-festive holiday blues should fear not, for here is a film so euphorically exuberant that you’re practically guaranteed to still find yourself smiling about it come next December.
Director David O. Russell has never been known for adhering to convention, and this biopic – based loosely on the life of single mother Joy Mangano, who rose to become founder and matriarch of a powerful family business dynasty – is no different. Ignore the inexplicably polarised opinions, Joy may be heavily stylised, but it’s full of substance; a frank and fierce feminist tale that is, forgive the language, fucking fantastic!
In an effectively exhausting opening act, O. Russell immerses us within Joy’s (Jennifer Lawrence) demanding day-to-day life. A broke single mother of two living in Quogue with her infirmed mother Terry (Virginia Madsen), inept ex-husband Tony (Édgar Ramírez), and amiable grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd, who’s lumbered with an unnecessary voiceover throughout), her heaving household is a hectic one that offers little by the way of respite. And as if to add insult to injury, her recently-divorced-for-a-third-time father Rudy (a surprisingly spirited Robert De Niro) has just shown up asking if he can stay.DP Linus Sandgren’s lens attentively tracks Joy around her house, his urgent camera movements utilised though kinetic editing to accentuate her domestic chaos. The combustible atmosphere of a family clashing when forced to spend a sustained amount of time with one another in a confined space is knowingly familiar, and there’s a palpable frustration in Joy’s exchanges with both her parents and Tony that cuts through the generous lashings of wry humour found in O. Russell and Annie Mumolo’s script. Yet we also glimpse an underlying poignancy, flickers of emotion that she’s trying her best to suppress, which chills you to your core like a biting New York winter.
We learn in the prologue that as a child Joy often dreamed of inventing things, but has so far struggled to realise her ambitions as an adult, prompting her mother to dismiss it all as fantasy. Inspiration strikes, however, after an incident involving spilt wine and broken glass prompts our aspiring entrepreneur to start work inventing a self-wringing ‘Miracle Mop’. Investing all her own funds, as well as those of Rudy’s wealthy new girlfriend Trudy (Isabella Rossellini) in to parts and labour, Joy develops a prototype, and soon finds herself with a product that’s ready for the market, but without an audience she can advertise it to.
This is Jennifer Lawrence’s third successive collaboration with O. Russell – the other two being saccharine screwball comedy Silver Linings Playbook, for which she won the Oscar, and the absurd Seventies crime-caper American Hustle – and not only is it the best of the three by some distance, but it is also the first one that feels like it has been tailored to fully demonstrate the astonishing actress’ remarkable range. Mangano’s story may well propel the plot, but this is a film that’s dedicated to all women who are determined to never give up on their dreams, and Lawrence’s virtuoso performance is the effortless embodiment of them all.It’s a rendering that’s rich with strength, but infused with an understated air of vulnerability. There’s a genuine fear in both Joy’s eyes and our hearts as her journey eventually finds her confronted with the faces of the QVC Shopping Channel’s male executives (symbolised by Bradley Cooper’s Neil Walker), and the anxiety felt as she struggles through that fateful first sales pitch is as traumatic for us as it is for her. Yet Lawrence’s command of the screen ensures that our confidence in Joy is never shaken. Even when she no longer believes in herself, we continue to believe in her, and that pays extraordinary dividends in the final act.
O. Russell has regularly struggled in the past to find an even tone to his direction, and yet here he pitches almost perfectly. Though the visual design, a strikingly surreal fairytale landscape, is occasionally distracting, it glows with an enchanted beauty that’s irresistibly evocative of Hollywood’s Golden-Era – an early sequence, which sees Joy and Tony sing Sinatra’s ‘Something Stupid’ to each other on a snow-covered stage, is a moment of the most pure cinematic magic.
Crucially though, his direction never detracts from Lawrence, whose spellbindingly sincere characterisation acts as a salute to the spectacular strength of women in our mad, male-dominated world. True to the legacy of Mangano’s ‘Miracle Mop’, Joy is a film that gives you exactly what it says on the tin.