David O. Russell has become somewhat of an Academy darling over the past few years. Although no actual wins to date, since being recognised for his directorial work on 2011’s The Fighter, he’s gained a further four nominations for Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle respectively. His latest work, the not-so-biographical Joy, a story inspired by – but far from a straight biopic of – Italian-American entrepreneur Joy Mangano, reteams him with ‘muse’ Jennifer Lawrence with Oscar buzz aplenty for both film and actress.
Joy (Lawrence) was a picture perfect young girl who’d not look out of place in the new-age Disney world of independent, strong (and feisty) women. A “doer” with an ambitious streak as her mentor/grandmother, ‘Mimi’ (Diane Ladd) – our narrator, and her supposed inspiration – gladly tells us, as we’re given a glimpse of a young aspiring creative cutting and sticking her way through various thoughts and ideas that crossed her ever ticking mind.
Flash forward to the present and Joy, bright, busy and frustrated, is stuck in a rut. Her dreams “keep getting further and further away”, as she deals with a dysfunctional family all living under one, literally, crumbling house. A bed-bound, soap opera-addicted mother Terry (Virginia Madsen), a doomed romantic father Rudy (De Niro), and a loser ex-husband Tony (Édgar Ramírez) living in her basement with two of her own little kids to look after, her inventive days look over as she tries to make ends meet to help keep her family in check as she works rubbish hours for a less-than-sensitive airline company.
This all changes in the midst of having glass picked out of her blood soaked hand following a breakage, as Joy has a moment of inspiration: the self-wringing Miracle Mop. With her daughter’s crayons, the mother-of-two sets about drawing up plans for her latest idea and sets about convincing her less-than-sure family, and then the rest of the country, that this is the awesome, one-of-a-kind item she believes it is.
Financial woes, dodgy business partners and failed sales opportunities come and go, but it’s her appearance on QVC under studio head Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper) which sets her new life in motion. Battling against the odds, Joy aims to prove her invention – and herself – has what it takes to take on the ever-competitive, brutal world of business.
There’s something deeply unsatisfying by how all round messy Joy is. It’s a commendable central premise of strength and persistence, matched with Hollywood’s finest young actress in J-Laws putting in an ever-worthy shift, yet everything we’ve come to admire from O. Russell’s work, particularly his most recent – the energy, charisma and humour – seems to have gone amiss here.
The director appears to have put all his eggs in the J-Laws basket. Its supporting characters – bar the odd fleeting moment from De Niro – appear restrained and somewhat underwhelming, with relationships – particularly between Joy and her ‘Mimi’ – a connection that first appears to be an important one, fizzling out with nothing more than an undercooked death scene whimper.
Originally set to be a straight biopic until O. Russell got his paws on Bridesmaids scribe Annie Mumolo’s script, there’s a bloated feeling to Joy that pushes out its important overriding narrative. Overcrowded with underdeveloped side-steps, it subsides the heart and soul of an important central story about a woman overcoming the odds, which at times borders on the overly patronising (“I taught her to think she’s more than who she is!”) and the overly sentimental (a repeated skit about her family being like a soap opera grows increasingly out-of-joint), but overall manages to keep afloat because of the strength of its lead’s performance.
It’s pretty and shiny with an effective use of music which we have come to expect from the Three Kings helmer that keeps you mildly entertained. Yet O. Russell – whose proven himself able to rinse out every inch of charisma from his stars in the most surface deep of spectacles (here’s looking at you, American Hustle!) – has, surprisingly, produced a much tamer, more sombre affair which lacks the levels of character and panache we hoped for.