David O. Russell, if you’re a fan, is the sort of filmmaker who can make almost any subject interesting, if not entertaining as hell. There’s a kind of whimsy to his approach that makes difficult subject matter seem simple and simple subject matter seem philosophically deep. Really, though, his films take the form of modern parables, weaving morals from the seemingly mundane and turning simplistic ideas into symbolically relevant touchstones that hit upon the mythological level of the human psyche. That’s sort of what you get when you’re stepping into Russell’s world, and the case is no different with his latest film, Joy. As ever, he constructs a modern fable from the deceptively benign, this time centering his film around the most abstract of concepts, a mop.
I suppose it’s slightly more complicated than that, but, then again, it always is with Russell. Loosely based upon the life of inventor/entrepreneur Joy Mangano, creator of the Miracle Mop, Joy is a wonderful addition to the holiday movie season and a damn fine time at the movies. Taking elements of Mangano’s real life struggles to produce and sell her invention, Russell weaves a parable about the tenacity of the human spirit and the search for the American Dream as well as an empowering take on modern feminism. While it’s certainly not his best work, at no point does it ever seem as though that’s what he was trying to produce. Rather, it feels as though this is the kind of movie that Russell makes when he just wants to make a movie, and the result is delightful for what it is.
Jennifer Lawrence steps into the titular role of a single mother doing everything she can to hold her family together in the face of financial difficulties and familial drama. Her mother Terry (Virginia Madsen) is a TV obsessed shut in who cares more about the problems facing the characters of her favorite soap opera than those of her family; her father Rudy (Robert DeNiro) is a loudmouth old school businessman who just wants to find love after a disastrous marriage to Terry; ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez) is a wannabe crooner who takes low-paying night club gigs in the pursuit of his dream. To make matters worse, they all live under the same roof as Joy, along with her children and grandmother (Diane Ladd), who also serves as the film’s narrator. Joy, despite intelligence and imagination, works a dead end job to try and make ends meet, deferring her own dreams for the better of her family. Those dreams, however, begin to come to fruition one day when she envisions a mop you don’t have to touch and, with the help of a new television station called QVC and its manager Neil (Bradley Cooper), becomes an overnight success.
But overnight success stories rarely happen overnight, and thus is the meat of our modern fairy tale. It would’ve been easy to deliver a film full of happy ups, feeding into the myth that success is easy with a little ingenuity. Instead, Russell injects a dose of reality into the success myth, showing us all the roadblocks and obstacles that stand in the way of a good idea and its actualization. This is a story in which the happy ending is earned and deserved rather than handed out on silver platters. In this way, it’s a celebration of tenacity. As more and more hurdles are thrown into Joy’s path, she must become more and more creative to avoid the implosion of her dreams.
Lawrence really stretches her abilities here, as Russell tends to demand from his favorite front lady. With each successive collaboration between the two, the young actress grows larger in both talent and stature, and it’s no different this time. American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook were no flukes; the actress and director have a chemistry that’s become increasingly rare in modern cinema, and the result is magical to behold. Under his guidance, Lawrence has won two Golden Globes, was just nominated for another, and been nominated for an Oscar twice, winning once for Silver Linings Playbook. It’s not difficult to see where she might take home another Globe here, and I wouldn’t doubt that she’s being heavily considered for another Oscar.
As much as she anchors the entire production, however, her supporting cast threatens to steal the show at nearly every turn. Cooper, especially, delivers a whimsically magnificent performance as the man who finally gives Joy her chance to shine. Acting as a sort of conductor for a bizarre orchestra, he balances the spinning plates of QVC with the deftness of an artist displaying a well-honed craft, creating what he views as magic in the form of sales. Though his role is small, he’s hard to look away from and almost overshadows even Lawrence with his performance.
While some have taken umbrage at some of the liberties Russell has taken with his script, Joy was never meant to be viewed as a cut and dry biopic. Biography isn’t the point here; rather it’s a foundation upon which Russell builds a modern fairy tale. His script captures this spirit well and it’s hard not to get caught up in his inspirational parable. Again, it may not be his strongest script and it arguably only works thanks to the total commitment from his cast to his vision, but Russell is a stone cold master at pulling off the impossible with the help of his cast, and he does it again here. His true talent, it would seem, is in finding people he trusts who, in turn, trust him in order to spin golden yarns from potentially worthless threads.
Which I guess sort of mirrors the point of Joy. Magic can be found, even if it’s never as simple as common myth would have you believe. It takes the right amount of tenacity mixed with the right surroundings of people to help you pull it off if success is going to be inevitable. That’s what Russell accomplishes in the fictionalized recounting of Joy’s life, and that is exactly what Joy accomplishes herself. Joy is delightful way to spend a Christmas afternoon at the movies, and another reminder of just how powerful a storyteller Russell can be.
Joy opens everywhere on Christmas Day.