There is a feeling of insincerity about Joy. From the miscasting of Jennifer Lawrence to the massive liberties taken with the life of the film’s “inspiration,” Joy never manages to be the inspiring tale it is meant to be. Instead, it’s a tedious and uninspired film about the American Dream falling into one woman’s lap.
Joy is very loosely based on the life of entrepreneur Joy Mangano, the woman who invented the Miracle Mop and other popular household products. Mangano herself is completely worthy of a biopic. We live in a world that so often undervalues the contributions of women, especially in the domestic sphere, that the mere acknowledgment of women such as Mangano is a breath of fresh air. She has made millions inventing products that make cleaning and organizing the home easier and more efficient, and she did it all as a single mother. Mangano is responsible for the most popular and highest selling products on the Home Shopping Channel and has built an impressive business that she continues to run.
Biopics have always played fast and loose with the truths of their subjects’ lives, but filmmaker David O. Russell has gone beyond the usual dramatization of reality associated with the genre. As a result, the work that Joy put into building her products and company never gets credit. The Joy of the film skips college to support her parents through their divorce, while the real one has a business degree from Pace University. In the film, Joy marries an unsuccessful singer, whereas in real life she married a businessman she met at school. The film goes out of its way to domesticate Joy and paint her accomplishments as more luck than hard work or ability. She is yet another uneducated housewife: smart and hardworking, but, as we are constantly reminded, with no business experience or acumen.
Instead of framing Joy as the story of a successful woman, Russell tries to create a generational tale of four women and their relationship to one another. This never quite comes to fruition, however, as the film quickly turns to the dysfunction of Joy’s family. Our matriarch narrator is quickly dispatched in favour of Robert De Niro’s over-the-top father, and Joy’s mother and daughter take a backseat to Joy and her mop. It is the family life that takes the bulk of the film, not Joy’s work as an inventor, and her life is constantly being juxtaposed with clips from a truly terrible soap opera. (This appears to be an attempt to add humour to the proceedings, but it distracts from whatever it is Russell is trying to do here.)
The character of Joy is strong-willed, but her family’s constant rhetoric about her lack of talent or experience dominates the impression of her. She has been reduced to the everywoman in the worst possible way. She’s becomes so un-extraordinary that she is reduced to a passive viewer of her own life and accomplishments. Things happen to her, but she doesn’t drive them, even though she is at the centre of the film.
Part of this is the result of casting Jennifer Lawrence. She is, once again, playing the role of a woman at least ten years her senior and she can’t quite handle it. An older actress might have been able to cut through the script’s attempts to domesticate and undermine Joy, but Lawrence isn’t quite up to the task. She remains, however, the most watchable part of the film. De Niro is manic and unfocused and the other actors, particularly Bradley Cooper, just seem bored. They all appear to be attempting to mirror the soaps that Joy’s mother (Virginia Madsen) spends her life watching, and come off just as stilted and mannered.
The direction is sloppy, as is the script, jumping between offbeat comedy and Douglas Sirk melodrama, but never managing to get either right. Everything just keeps happening, with no rhyme or reason. The actors sleepwalk, and reality is amplified to heights that make it impossible to suspend disbelief, but not high enough to take us into another world.
In the end, it’s impossible to attribute any of Joy’s success to anything other than dumb luck. Instead the message of Joy is, if you want to be successful, you must sacrifice and suffer and if you are very, very lucky, all your dreams will come true.