Joy - Great Cast and Decent Ideas Hampered by Misguided Choices
I was surprised to discover that David O. Russell as a filmmaker is actually fairly divisive. I really liked Silver Linings Playbook, and still revisit it. I liked American Hustle at the time, but I don’t think back on it very much. So I didn’t know what I was going to think going into his latest film, Joy. People either hated it or thought it was quite good, and coming out of it I fell somewhere in the middle. Joy is kind of a mess, but there are some likable elements that survive it.
A little backstory. In 2012, Bridesmaids screenwriter Annie Mumolo was hired to adapt the story of Joy Mangano, a struggling housewife who finds success as the inventor of the Miracle Mop. Eventually her screenplay finds its way into the arms of David O. Russell, and he re-writes it. The studios then decided that O. Russell deserved to be the sole writer credit, which forced Mumolo to sue. She got a story credit, but O. Russell maintained his sole screenplay credit.
I wonder how many of Mumolo’s ideas made it into Joy. The business aspect of the film is absolutely fascinating to watch, while her family life is focused on a little too much. The family aspect is definitely what feels the most O. Russell-esque, and as such the film becomes horribly unfocused. It’s almost as though you’re watching two movies, and it’s painfully apparent which of the two movies Joy should have been. O. Russell also casted his favorites, including Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Robert De Niro.
The entire ensemble in Joy is just fine, in fact they basically carry the film, but let’s dive deeper. Lawrence plays Mangano, and while she is entirely watchable she is still miscast. There are several scenes where Lawrence has to play somebody who has been completely beaten down by life, and this is something she has yet to access (though this is not her fault). There is a scene where she is supposed to be playing Joy in high school that’s downright comical, because she looks the exact same then as she does in the present setting of the movie (even funnier is Edgar Ramirez in that same scene, who still looks like he’s 40 despite the flashback context).
I suspect the blame lies more with O. Russell for casting her. Bradley Cooper plays the head at QVC whom Joy establishes a business relationship with, and he is very good, a natural charmer. It probably should have been a smaller role than it was, but Cooper is enough of a joy (ha!) to watch that it could have been far worse. Robert De Niro is pretty solid as her father, and Isabella Rossellini is also great as his new girlfriend.
Joy is sporadically engaging, I can’t say I hated it, but it’s such a mess. I am fascinated by the premise of a woman whose prime has passed her and no longer can access the opportunities she once could, using her wit and her creativity to defy societal expectations and become a success (through the magic of capitalism!). The movie should have been about that, but David O. Russell was so fixated with placing his stamp upon it and turning it into Silver Linings Playbook 2 that he ends up sinking it.