Film of the week: Joy

David O. Russell and Jennifer Lawrence bring their screwball brio to the saga of a woman’s entrepreneurial triumph over family dysfunction and marketplace chicanery.

from our February 2016 issue

Joy (2015)

Prior to directing Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook (2012), David O. Russell brought a screwball energy and garrulousness to Flirting with Disaster (1996), Three Kings (1999), I ♥ Huckabees (2004) and The Fighter (2010) that seemed as relishable a reason to make those movies as their unscrewball-ish themes. Though Silver Linings was ostensibly about mental illness and the subsequent American Hustle (2013) was prompted by the FBI’s late-70s Abscam sting operation, Lawrence’s appealingly nervy performances as the recovering sex addict in the former and the cheated-on wife in the latter pushed Russell closer to the original spirit of screwball comedy as a genre for depicting the battle of the sexes. Had Lawrence been born before 1910, she might have stolen roles from Jean Arthur or Carole Lombard – if not the haute Myrna Loy.

Lawrence’s working-class aura and winning combination of gutsiness and vulnerability made her a natural fit for the role of the Long Island inventor-businesswoman Joy Mangano in Russell’s latest hectic comedy. Joy was originated for Fox 2000 by the Bridesmaids screenwriter Annie Mumolo before Russell boarded the project and fictionalised elements of Mangano’s story by drawing on the experiences of other entrepreneurs.

The director’s first film with a female central protagonist, Joy is effervescent and has a familiar paciness but this time he hasn’t elicited Lawrence’s daffy sexiness. By sublimating the attraction between Joy and Neil Walker, Bradley Cooper’s shopping channel network hotshot (which only surfaces in the film’s closing seconds, when Joy is left wistful by her former mentor’s hasty visit), Russell steers the movie away from screwball and on to the terrain of the woman’s picture, Mildred Pierce (1945) and Erin Brockovich (2000) being obvious antecedents. Eliminating romance – a flashback to Joy and ex-husband Tony’s giddy courtship merely establishes that he lacks her capacity for breadwinning – gives Russell room to explore three sociocultural aspects of Joy’s harsh education in accomplishing the American dream: the often negative role played in it by members of her dysfunctional family; the significance of stardom in the national life; and the thin line between business and crime.

Joy (2015)

Joy proceeds as an ironic if not cynical modern fairytale. The heroine’s creation of her talismanic $19.95 ‘Miracle Mop’ comes with a starburst borrowed from Mickey Mouse’s animating of his broom in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice section of Disney’s Fantasia (like Mickey, Joy is imperilled by multiplying her domestic implement). Surrounding the scrappy, multi-tasking princess Joy and her beloved pep-talking grandmother Mimi (this season’s second posthumous narrator following Legend’s Frances Shea) is a full complement of Grimm-Perrault family archetypes, though they prove as psychologically variegated as those in The Fighter and Silver Linings. They are: the ‘dead’ mother (depressed TV soap-addict Carrie); the feckless father, Rudy (he helps Joy pay her mortgage but unforgivably appoints her half-sister Peggy as her representative and publicly demeans Joy); the evil stepmother (Rudy’s girlfriend Trudy invests in Joy’s idea but presses for a return on her investment); the ugly stepsister (Peggy resents Joy’s success and, unconsciously or not, sabotages her financially); the vain prince (delusional though he is about his singing skills, Tony gives Joy excellent advice).

If it takes a village to raise a child, Russell implies that it takes a family to bring its brightest, boldest scion to the brink of ruin: the greed, sloth, envy and meddlesomeness that taint members of Joy’s immediate circle make it the opposite of the utopian-minded Sycamores in Frank Capra’s 1938 screwball entry You Can’t Take It with You. Joy’s lamenting what “was lost 17 years ago” suggests that she had to abandon her career because Rudy walked out on the family. Her inability to forge a lasting romantic relationship presumably stems from the same cause, but that’s a secondary consideration in a film celebrating the journey of a sincere, driven single woman. The late revelation that Joy carries a torch for Neil scarcely compromises her integrity as an exemplary Hollywood ‘strong woman’ – one who highlights the relative inauthenticity of a certain dystopia-dwelling warrior girl – though you might ask why it was necessary to have Joy pine for a Bradley Cooper character. At least director of photgraphy Linus Sandgren’s many close-ups of Lawrence’s sculpted face avoid sexually objectifying her; the camera reaches in to scrutinise Joy’s emotions as she creates, reacts to crises and thinks on her feet.

Joy (2015)

Neil’s prime purpose in the film is to awaken Joy to the power of 1990s-style TV hucksterism. When Tony brings her to the Pennsylvania headquarters of the shopping channel network QVC, they wait in the forebodingly nave-like lobby to see if she can land an on-air slot for her mop, only for his contact to tell them he’s too busy to talk. Luckily, Neil is nearby and consents to a quick meeting. Having calculatedly delayed Cooper’s entrance in the film to build audience anticipation, Russell introduces him elliptically: Joy half-glimpses him from behind as he guides her to a mysterious door leading to the studio.

This almost-meta moment augurs the prospect of further explosive chemistry between the Silver Linings leads, while playing with Cooper’s star power. It puts the viewer in Joy’s place as, escorted on to the studio floor by Neil, she listens to his spiel on the historical importance of Darryl F. Zanuck and Jack L. Warner, extolling how immigrants’ son David O. Selznick made a star of commonplace American Jennifer Jones (a putative template for Neil’s relationship with Joy). He also teaches Joy that a performer’s hands are as important as the face in attracting attention, even as his eyes and hers are doing all the talking. Russell lets this falling-in-love scene dangle until the end of the film because his focus is Joy’s professional fulfilment.

“The ordinary meets the extraordinary every day,” Neil goes on. As the king of this land of commercial opportunity – where even the TV celebrity Joan Rivers works – Neil proves less extraordinary than Joy, who defies his and Rivers’s advice to wear a glamorous business suit when presenting her mop on air, being more comfortable in her white shirt. Joy disdains the glitz of the soap stars whose fantasy lives immobilise the depressed Carrie – and who infiltrate Joy’s nightmares. Joy makes her fortune by behaving naturally and dressing unpretentiously; the slightly austere fiftysomething business matriarch she’s become by the end of the film cuts a more self-contained figure than Neil, whose aplomb has diminished since they last met.

Joy (2015)

When Joy gives herself a third-act makeover to take on the Texan who is trying to defraud her (a gaunt J.R. Ewing manqué), she simply cuts her hair and dons a leather jacket to look like a tough cookie. It’s a shame, perhaps, that this conclusive ‘battle’ scene necessitated her transformation into a 2000-era Charlie’s Angel type, yet Lawrence makes it credible by revealing afterwards how scared Joy was.

If this element of the narrative seems tacked on, Joy’s struggle to retain her patent and her need to fight dirty to avoid bankruptcy show, in microcosm, what swimming with the sharks entails in the American marketplace. Clearly, Russell had to render Joy’s acceleration on her learning curve in terms of visually stirring action, since having lawyers write letters and make phone calls would not have made for an exciting denouement. The playful sequence in which Joy escapes from a locked room on to a Californian factory floor to examine mop pieces illegally made from her moulds is an intertextual nod to the stealthy manoeuvres of Lawrence’s Hunger Games heroine Katniss Everdeen. This may thrill Lawrence’s younger fans. Some viewers will wonder when she’ll invest another character with the gravitas of her Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone (2010). As long as Russell is in screwball mode, it may take another director to invoke it.

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