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The film begins with a little girl with big ideas and a grandmother who pushes her to never give up on her dreams. That grandmother (Diane Ladd) narrates like she’s telling a goodnight story. It’s hokey and yet it never tries not to be, playing out like a soap opera, which actually becomes a part in the story in both what is on the television and in how Joy sees herself in her sleeping dreams. Joy’s life is a daytime drama. As a thematic device, it doesn’t always work, even though there are moments when it does.
Joy is up to ears in issues. Her parents are divorced but due to circumstances that feel more contrived than authentic, still live in the same house. So too does Joy’s ex-husband. And their two kids. The place is a madhouse and it all stays together because of Joy who is the problem-solver and does it without a hitch, though she does get sleepy, understandably. When her father knocks over, or rather throws, some ceramic knick-knacks on the floor in an argument with his his ex-wife, Joy cleans it up but goes to bed later with an idea in her head, perhaps nudged a bit by the copious amount of cough medicine her father gives her to help her sleep.
When she wakes up, she starts doodling on her daughter’s construction paper with a crayon, big loops over and over until she realizes what she’s seen in her head. A mop. But not any old mop, this one is different, and getting a prototype made is a lot more work (and money) that she expects. She gets the whole family involved, some she wishes weren’t but soon she finds herself on a start-up television network called QVC under the direction of Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), a smooth-talking sales and marketing executive who gives her a chance. But that’s the just where things really get started.
Directed by David O’Russell and staring his new stable of regular actors Lawrence, Cooper and Robert De Niro, who played Cooper’s father in Silver Lining’s Playbook (2012) and now Lawrence’s dad here, Joy is a flawed film with a lot of heart but not much substance. The performances are all as good as expected and that includes the supporting players, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, and Édgar Ramírez among others. The cast is a collection of oddball characters that dramatize the real story and fit well enough into the fantasy of it all, but that’s also a bit of the problem as the tone shifts often, slipping from the breezy comedic opening into a last act that feels like an Elmore Leonard novel before closing on a scene that could almost be a female version of the Godfather.
But O’Russell doesn’t really seem to mind. He loves his leading lady, and has found now in three films how to tap into that star power. He keeps his camera steady on Lawrence, sometimes for a tad too long, but she radiates and keeps it satisfying. It’s hard to believe how young she really is and how far she’s come since Winter’s Bone (2008), the film that shot her into the limelight. Here she spans twenty years and commits to the role with the same passion she has shown in much of her work. We believe her when she sells her mop. We want to buy one. That is the power of movies.
Joy feels like a combination of three works cobbled together to make a singular story. Joy’s grandmother’s narration abruptly stops, disappearing for most of the film before suddenly, for no reason, returning in the end. Worse, the origin of the voice is off-putting when you realize where it’s ultimately coming from. A flash-forward scene doesn’t really work, and the music, which is mostly pop songs from the 60’s and 70s is often distracting, too loud in places and forced. Still, the journey of the mop itself is fascinating, even if it is flowered up at bit. There is a kind of behind the scenes feel to the show in spots, and Cooper’s near operatic conductor-like walkthrough of his television studio is a real treat.
It’s not the best from any of the people involved, but it does entertain. It works best where it begins and while the pairing of Cooper and Lawerence is getting a bit well-worn, they do have great chemistry and I suspect their best work together is still yet come.
Director(s): David O. Russell
Actor(s): Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper
Genre: Bio, Drama