Joy Plot Summary:
Based on the life of Joy Mangano, inventor of the Miracle Mop, Joy follows a young woman (Jennifer Lawrence) with a gift for inventing as she tries to overcome her circumstances and fulfill her dreams.
Another holiday season, another David O. Russell movie starring Jennifer Lawrence. Joy marks their third collaboration and while Lawrence won a well-deserved Oscar for their first film, Silver Linings Playbook, this is the first time she’s taken center stage.
It almost feels pointless to praise Lawrence’s acting after how much great work she’s done, but this film is further proof of why she’s so highly-regarded. She’s played beaten down before (most recently in the final installment of The Hunger Games earlier this year), but Joy’s adversity is smaller, closer to every day life. For instance, she doesn’t go to college because her parents are splitting and her father (Robert DeNiro) needs help with his business. Or she has to tear up the wood flooring of her mother’s (Virginia Madsen) room because the pipes are leaking. She’s a woman who just can’t catch a break and Lawrence takes her from the depths of despair to pure triumph–sometimes within the same scene–and makes almost as invested in Joy’s life as the character herself. It’s a hell of a performance and deserves all the attention it gets, which is why it’s frustrating that Russell didn’t have more confidence in it.
In the film, Mimi’s grandmother (a wonderful but underutilized Diane Ladd) narrates the action. However, the decision to add a voice over was made long after filming and it’s one of the weaker elements of the film’s structure. Lawrence is mostly strong enough to convey what the audience needs to know about her character’s state of mind, so the cloying voice over frequently feels like unnecessary hand-holding. Perhaps if it was part of the rather odd soap opera theme that appears through the rest of the film, it might work, but there’s no obvious artistic reasoning behind the choice.
That said, there are moments when it works. The film’s structure is confusing to say the least. It jumps back and forth through time, from Joy’s childhood to the slow process of inventing the mop and back again, with little warning. Most of the time, it’s fairly easy to understand why the jumps are being made and what point Russell is trying to make by juxtaposing the scenes. However, when it doesn’t, he relies on the voice over to make the connection for us. Nowhere is that truer than with the ending. Russell’s wandering camera and unbroken shots are usually what make his films so entertaining, but here, it’s too easy to see the artifice. The structure of the scene and the way the space is used in it are so unusual that it’s difficult to fully engage in the character’s triumph. We’re too busy figuring out what’s going on.
Still, Russell is making cinema as jazz and even if his experimentation doesn’t always work, it’s still fascinating to watch. To put it simply, the film’s episodic, non-linear, actor-y brand of storytelling won’t work for everyone. One couple in my audience fell into a deep sleep sometime around the film’s halfway mark and stayed that way even as the credits rolled. Granted, it was a 10:40 p.m. showing in a theater with reclining seats, but the point still stands. However, for those who enjoy something a little challenging, Joy is further proof that watching David O. Russell and Jennifer Lawrence make movies together is an activity worthy of becoming a holiday tradition.