The title of David O.Russell’s latest film not only introduces the main character, Joy Mangano, played by Jennifer Lawrence, but also tells us something about the mood theatergoers are supposed to feel once the credits roll. And indeed, I wanted to feel some sort of joyful and kick ass moment after two hours of tedious female-bashing, but all I felt was a deep appreciation for the star of the show, the Miracle Mop.
It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that Russell begins with a 1980s soap-opera scene that hints at the structure of the film. It then pans to a loving family centered on father Rudy’s (Robert De Niro) repair shop. Yet the scene quickly dissipates, taking Joy’s dreams of creating and inventing with it once her parents divorce. In the next scene, Joy is older with an ex-husband in the basement, two children and their grandmother/caretaker upstairs, and Joy’s mother, bedridden in the sunroom and obsessed with her favorite soap. With help from her father, who also moves back in, Joy barely keeps the family afloat, fixing pipes and cleaning floors in between the family’s demands.
The gender roles in the film are overly prescribed, with Joy constantly being chastised by her family and the business folks she deals with once her mop invention -assumed to be the Miracle Mop and Joy assumed to be based on the real Joy Mangano, though both were not labeled as such in the film- finds legs and success. We are made to see that only Joy’s tenacity gets her through – as she barrels past her father and half-sister’s doubts, as she pushes her way into QVC meetings and shows, and as she negotiates with slimy manufacturers, and yet the scenes feel cheap and silly. Joy’s chastisement is so over the top that the final showdowns are a wash. I fleeting considered switching to Norma Rae halfway through as a more accurate representation of gender and labor issues.
Having witnessed my fair share of 80s soap operas, including the famous wedding of Luke and Laura, I found Russell’s interpretation of the soap opera odd and not applicable to Joy’s story. Strange pauses, rough jumps between characters and scenes, and sputtering starts and stops of music permeate the film, supposedly creating the soap-opera feel, yet leaving me to wonder if the editing was done by a pack of hyenas.
Despite the horrific editing, the star of the film is QVC, with Bradley Cooper playing Neil Walker, program director of the fledging Lancaster, PA enterprise gaining enormous success. Walker takes Joy on a whirlwind tour of the stages and phone banks, highlighting one of their star products and celebrities, Joan Rivers -played a little unsettlingly by Melissa Rivers. These are the exciting moments when action, suspense, and intrigue match the audience’s expectations. When Joy gets onstage and begins the long, hard sell, we’re with her – cheering as the sales of her magical mop rise higher and higher.
But success comes at a price, and while that price at first seems to be her family’s backstabbing and bad business deals, in the long run it becomes Joy’s own empire, which by the end of the film appears more like a rerun of Shark Tank, with Joy buying other businesses and inventions rather than creating her own.
Truth be told, I loved Russell’s I Heart Huckabees and Silver Linings Playbook. They were smart, quirky films. These odds homages to the 70s, 80s, and 90s found in American Hustle and Joy do not ring true to Russell’s vision. Enough with the pastiche, Russell (and you too, Tarantino). Give us something new.