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D: David O. Russell / 124m

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, Edgar Ramirez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Dascha Polanco, Elisabeth Röhm, Aundrea Gadsby, Gia Gadsby

At first glance, Joy looks like a traditional rags to riches story about a plucky young woman who overcomes several hurdles on her way to making her fortune. And for the most part this is exactly the kind of movie that Joy is. But it’s also a David O. Russell movie, and that means that the story can’t be told in a completely straightforward way. Instead we’re treated to occasional dream sequences that apparently hold a mirror up to Joy’s feelings at the time, a voiceover that comes and goes without adding too much to the overall presentation, and a lengthy stopover at the headquarters of the QVC Channel that amounts to a very generous piece of promotion.

By returning to the kind of small-town milieu he depicted so well in Silver Linings Playbook (2012), Russell has forgotten to include the one thing that made that movie so affecting and effective: interesting characters. Here, we have budding business matriarch Joy Mangano (Lawrence) whose struggle to get her Miracle Mop – the first self-wringing mop – both into production and into people’s homes is punctuated by several obstacles and problems, not the least of which is her business naïvete. That she overcomes all these problems is a given – this is based on a true story after all – but in the hands of Russell and his co-story writer Annie Mumolo, Joy’s tale lacks the kind of investment in the characters that’s needed for an audience to be cheering them on through adversity after adversity.

Joy - scene2

The problems begin almost immediately, with Joy’s grandmother Mimi (an almost unrecognisable Ladd), foreshadowing events with an upbeat voiceover that predicts Joy’s success as an adult because Mimi knows she’s destined for greatness. This is the restaurant equivalent of being told that a particular meal on the menu is going to be a feast for the tastebuds. If you’re already seated at your table (or in the back row of your local cinema), then you’re not going to disbelieve the person telling you all this, and with Joy we know in advance that Mimi’s predictions will come true. So it doesn’t need all this dreamy talk of predestination and making one’s dreams come true. And this is largely the role that Ladd has in the movie, to pop up every now and then when things go wrong and remind everyone that everything will be alright in the end. (But we know this already…)

We then have a considerable amount of time spent introducing the characters. There’s Joy, obviously, a divorced mother of two who spends most of her time clearing up after her reclusive mother, Terry (Madsen), and her father, Rudy (De Niro), who owns an auto repair shop. Her parents are divorced, but circumstances have them living in Joy’s house, Terry in her room, Rudy in the basement. There’s also Tony (Ramirez), Joy’s ex-husband, who also lives in the basement, and has his own dreams of being a singer (but this subplot is smothered at birth and dismissed thereafter). Adding to the mix is Joy’s petulant half-sister Peggy (Röhm), whose own struggle to be accepted fully by Rudy is another subplot that gets an early grave, and Joy’s childhood friend Jackie (Polanco), whose role is to support Joy at the expense of having any character of her own. All these characters interact with each other in ways that are mostly confrontational, but which add up to a series of poorly timed dramatic interludes, Russell filming these scenes as if they were rehearsals rather than the finished offering.

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And then there’s Joy herself. Whatever really happened in Joy Mangano’s life as she fought to get her Miracle Mop into people’s homes (“It’s the only mop you’ll ever need to buy” is repeated like a mantra), it’s hard to believe that someone with so much flair and the kind of intelligence to come up with such a revolutionary invention could be so continuously undermined both by her family – though admittedly with her best interests at heart – and by such a large number of poor business decisions. And the movie eventually realises this at the end, but by then it’s too late. Despite several setbacks, including a declaration of bankruptcy that gets ignored like so many other briefly introduced subplots, Joy wins out in the end, as expected, but it’s the way in which she does that shows just how uninterested Russell is in portraying his central character in any kind of consistent light. Joy solves all her business problems by providing the kind of expertly constructed and detailed deconstruction of her opponent’s position that only exists in the movies, and which has them backing down immediately.

Russell’s uneven, and often ill-considered script is the one major flaw that stops Joy from being the thought-provoking, inspirational movie it no doubt wants to be in the first place. Thankfully it’s bolstered by an impressive performance from Lawrence even if she is fighting against the script’s often painful restrictions on her ability to connect with the audience. Alas, the same can’t be said for Cooper, who plays a senior buyer at QVC as if he were a Messiah of the airwaves. It’s an arch, uncomfortable to watch performance, and helps to mire the movie around the halfway mark, as Joy’s initial attempts to sell the Miracle Mop are given awkward free rein on TV, and the movie’s pace, not the sprightliest at the best of times, grinds to a clunking halt. De Niro has the look of an actor whose starting to realise his role isn’t going to be as big or as important to the story as he’d thought, Madsen channels an odd combination of deliberate shut-in and shy Southern belle supposedly to comic effect but soon becomes annoying, Ramirez is sidelined early on and hangs around in the background for two thirds of the movie, and Rossellini comes in halfway through and behaves like a low-rent mafiosi whose just suffered a minor stroke.

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Along with American Hustle (2013), Russell seems to be foregoing content over style, but here it doesn’t work either. The wintry Long Island setting and bland interiors do little to improve the visual malaise that stalks the movie throughout, and there are too many occasions where the framing seems off-kilter, though whether this is deliberate or not is hard to tell, but it does have the effect of further distancing the viewer from the characters. Russell adds a few cinematic tricks to mix things up but they only serve to reinforce how ineffective the overall design is. With it already being too difficult to connect with Joy and her dysfunctional family, Russell’s directorial stance and ragged screenplay offer little help in getting any actual joy out of Joy.

Rating: 6/10 – lacking the necessary creative steam to get it through the hesitancies and inconsistencies of the script, Joy is a pedestrian tale of success borne out of personal tenacity; Lawrence elevates proceedings but even her sterling effort can’t save a movie that doesn’t know what kind of movie it wants to be, and which fumbles around for too long trying to find out.