I wouldn’t call Joy the best collaboration between writer/director David O. Russell and actress Jennifer Lawrence; I don’t even know if it’s their second-best. Not to blame them – it’s no easy feat to follow up the superb Silver Linings Playbook and the pretty-good American Hustle.
Joy is the real-life story of a struggling divorced mother who’s put her dreams on hold. By chance, she has an epiphany on what becomes her big invention, the Miracle Mop, and plunges headfirst into the drama of manufacturing, advertising, and eventually her career legacy – all while balancing her dysfunctional family.
As it tackles such a breadth of topics, Joy as a whole feels uneven. It jumps around, and doesn’t feel quite focused – as if it were a lengthy novel being adapted for film, and the screenwriters couldn’t decide what source material to cut. Of course, as this was based on real-life events, there already was a narrative to chip away from.
In terms of tone, however, its lumpiness makes Joy the more endearing. Real life doesn’t start and end with the work day, and Russell’s integration of both the career and family worlds provide a broader (if unfocused) perspective of all the elements taking a toll on this young woman. Her family feels like a soap opera, running in parallel with the lousy daytime drama her mother watches on TV all day.
Her career, on the other hand, often pivots from nightmare to glorious dream. In a scene that reminded me of American Hustle at its best, QVC exec Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper) shows Joy around their sets and what their sales flow is like. It’s the movie’s most sensual moment, as he whispers excitedly through each step of the operation and the climax of a successful sales run.
On the other end of the spectrum, most of the film’s drama comes from her business setbacks: struggling to get investment, not selling product, legal battles with patents and contracts. All the action seems to culminate into one core said conflict, but once it’s resolved the film’s tone, highlighted by cheery music and gliding camera motions, indicates that now all is well. The voice-over narration even points out additional troubles that arise, both in her career and in the family unit, but the bizarrely too-good-to-be-true feel of the finale apparently overrides that.
Should we take her later problems for granted? Was this last one we witnessed “it,” and the rest of them aren’t so bad? Given the incredibly spotty career track she’s had, it’s hard to buy that the story’s over; emotionally, we may have wrapped things up but certainly not on a narrative level.