There’s nothing more frustrating than seeing something that grasps at greatness and comes up short.
Joy Mangano invented her own greatness, though. She invented the Miracle Mop and made millions of dollars, embodying the inventive entrepreneurship that’s so often considered part of the American character. Her infomercials became superb daytime TV — would you look at what that shaggy dog-looking mop can do!? The issue is with her loose biopic, though. It misses a spot. A lot of spots, actually. But damned if it doesn’t go down without a fight.
Joy is upon us with such great ideas and yet the whole product doesn’t always work. Surely one can’t hate a film when the opening dedication is “inspired by true stories of daring women.” Or a film that serves as a Citizen Kane fable about one woman’s struggles to succeed, with healthy helpings of family dysfunction and soap opera that verges on Fellini? A scrappy, wily, Bechdel Test-passing prestige feature? The sort of film off which David O. Russell could hit a home run? Bada boom! That sounds awesome!
But if Joy has a mess on its hands, then at least it’s a noticeable, commendable one. Here’s a film with all the right ingredients and a few too many wrong moves, yet one that’s admirable for trying as hard as it does.
Jennifer Lawrence (along with Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper) stars for the third time in a David O. Russell vehicle. This time, it’s a rags-to-mop-riches story of Mangano, the real-life cleaning product and home shopping magnate. Like Russell’s previous American Hustle, the filmmaker is less interested in fidelity to source material and more in abstract expressionism about real ideas. That is, to say, Lawrence looks nothing like the real Mangano, and ages a solid 20 to 30 years on screen, with hairstyle changes mostly, but that doesn’t matter. Lawrence embodies the driven inventor from East Meadow, NY, accent and gunplay and all. Her life plays out by the decade as Mangano scrimps to prove that she’s the strong matriarch folks had pegged her for back when she was little. It’s as if, divined by fairy-tale logic and the prophetic (or just forced) words of her grandmother, Joy is destined for greatness
Mangano was a high school valedictorian, and a loving mother. She didn’t go to college to stabilize her own family and others’. Mangano married a handsome young Argentinian wannabe lounge singer (Edgar Ramirez). Mangano also had a deep, contentious relationship with her surly pop Rudy (De Niro, muggy). And all this, for better or worse, got in the way. As a young girl, Mangano dreamt of creating things, and the dream never died so much as it was locked away as life happened. As she ages, Joy feels all the pains of a working-class mother. Being named Joy, it’s a burden.
The story never truly digs into Joy the person, the beacon, or the genius. Lawrence is merely Joy, the surreally-invented character study, connecting a film that could break out into something vibrant at any second, but stumbles over its own assemblage. It’s got the goods, but is so hastily realized.
Back to Joy’s brushes with greatness. There are certain scenes of undeniable emotional heft, and zany pleasures as well. Joy springs forward with dizzying speed, but with too simple an outline.
We’re often given half-thoughts, well-crafted bits that hardly solidify the whole. The pathos of the whole is weakened when Russell opts to experiment with a full bucket of tones and styles. One minute, Joy is dreaming of innocence lost by way of daytime television’s tropes. The next, De Niro is making everybody cry (the bad way) at a wedding. A scene in which Mangano tries to sell customers her mops in a snowy K-Mart parking lot aims at a hungry, silly kind of comedy of the lower middle class with plain insights. That’s great, only the second any scene like it finds some momentum, it’s off to another idea and another scene.
Only occasionally does Joy clean up. To Joy’s credit, ‘80s-style montage for making mops hasn’t felt this fun, since what, the ‘80s? Watching Lawrence muster up some of her sternest stuff to date as she admits defeat in front of her family is the exact way to break a heart in half, and Lawrence gives the signature focus and intensity that she’s known for in very mature ways. Why even Cooper gets a great scene despite his lack of humanity, as a QVC cut-throat orchestrating sales like a bullfighter with Spanish music in some divine comedy. There are some breathtaking moments, but that’s just it: moments, not a collection of sturdy scenes constituting a story with strongly developed and expressed arcs.
You know, a movie.
Russell slips and slides his way through patchwork without a clear focus for the subject matter at hand. One can’t help but get the gnawing feeling that grander ambitions were offset by snarkier tendencies, or worse yet, that more than one thing was left on the floor. (Note: The first teaser trailer definitely has stuff not in the movie.)
The film doesn’t gel. It’s loud, yet too modest. It’s driven in its parable about overcoming obstacles, yet too tidily told. Human, yet unbelievably animated. What is Joy? Satire? Fable? An existentialist romp through the world of home shopping? I Love Lucy meets The Beverly Hillbillies? It’s a little of all of the above, yet never completely enough.
American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook were back-to-back miracles for Russell. They operated at heightened, Swiftian levels with chunky characterizations and sweaty amiability. Those films nailed their respective senses of humor, and that allowed the characters to live, breathe, and be cared about, regardless of wigs and high-concept quirks. Joy has the texture of another great screwball classic, but not the flavor or full command of mood.
In QVC terms: Joy looks neat, sounds too good to be true, and often is.