To only describe Joy as a film about the inventor of the self-wringing mop would do David O. Russell’s film a disservice as this follow up to American Hustle gets under the fingernails to explore the obstacles, visible and otherwise, an ambitious woman experiences in a patriarchal society. That’s Joy’s raison d’etre. But this and another strong performance from Lawrence does not automatically turn Joy into a good film.
“I don’t need a prince,” says Lawrence’s eponymous single mother of two, as the men in her life have let her down. Dad (De Niro) has moved back into her already busy home - mum Madsen lies in bed watching bad soap operas and grandmother Diane Ladd, through whose eyes based on a true story, unfolds, is merely an observer - after another failed marriage. Layabout ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez), a wannabe Tom Jones, occupies the basement.
O. Russell introduces Joy, her life, her financially stricken world and the kooky characters that inhabit it (including half-sister Elisabeth Rohm) in a whirlwind opening sequence that bounces about here and there, unsure of what it’s about and where it’s going. It only belatedly settles down when Joy gets an idea for a self-wringing mop. Plunging her meagre savings, mortgaging her home and begging investment from De Niro’s new squeeze, rich widower Isabella Rossellini, into designs and prototypes, the under pressure Joy convinces TV executive Bradley Cooper, then of the nascent QVC, to air her infomercial. But that’s when the real problems begin…
Joy is too ramshackle, too scattershot in its opening half. O. Russell unleashes a cacophony of detail – Joy bounces from one problem (kid has a fever) to another (a pipe in her mother’s room bursts) to another (being put on a night shift) - but little of this is essential and can be hugely distracting. Holding on to Joy and investing in her dream takes work when it really shouldn’t; perhaps the writer-director is making parallels between Madsen’s awful anything-goes soaps and Joy’s life but that’s a jump. The smoke eventually clears for a terrific sequence when Joy finds herself in the world of infomercials and from there O. Russell becomes more economical with his story telling.
And it’s here that the story’s theme - oppression of the female, both deliberately and subconsciously – comes to the fore. Joy’s talent is stripped by parasites looking to cash-in and see her as easy meat. When she confronts her shady (male) developer, she’s muscled out of the factory by two burly officers (male). Ex-hubby Ramirez is kind but useless while De Niro blames himself for allowing his silly daughter to believe she can pull this off. But O. Russell makes the point that societal patriarchy is so ingrained in our DNA that even women are a part of the problem: half-sis Rohm is determined to use Joy’s unsure footing in this male-dominated world to have a piece of the pie and Rossellini, wagging a finger in Joy’s face, tells her that a woman has no place in business.
Soaring about all the noise is a luminous Jennifer Lawrence, showing both strength and fear as she’s pushed around by her director’s tonally inconsistent screenplay. Worth a goo for her.