Christmas is here, and like Papa Claus delivering gifts to the young’uns, David O. Russell brings “Joy” to the world. Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro, “Joy” is the unconventional biopic about the inventor of the Miracle Mop, Joy Mangano. Nota bene, filmmakers: This is how you make a great biopic film. It’s jumpy, unexpected and it spins the subject’s life in a fresh new light. After delivering “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle,” two of the sunniest and funniest films of the 2010s, O. Russell dials his schtick down about 30 watts to weave a winning, gripping tale of ups and downs.
The story tracks Joy Mangano (Lawrence), an unemployed, divorced housewife and mother of one. Her home is as dysfunctional as they get: Her divorced parents (De Niro and Virginia Madsen) still live under the same roof, as does Joy’s ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez), a Venezuelan rock singer who wants to be the next Tom Jones. (“It’s not a bad gig,” he casually confides to De Niro.) Joy aspires to be a successful inventor, but her dreams are constantly called into question by her bullying older sister (Elisabeth Röhm) and her dad’s rich girlfriend Trudy (Isabella Rossellini). Nevertheless, Joy is determined that her self-wringing “Miracle Mop” will be big.
Joy builds her business empire from the bottom-up: drawing patents with her daughter’s Crayolas, building her mops with a couple of Latino women from church in a makeshift sweatshop and pitching her product in the snowy backlots of Kmarts. But her family’s confidence in Joy’s abilities is put under immense stress when she tries to sell the patent to a yuppie TV exec (Bradley Cooper), who promises more than he can guarantee.
The movie’s subject — the woman who invented the Miracle Mop, of all the mundane things in the world — sounds too banal and cutesy on paper to be translated to the screen. But in the hands of David O. Russell, it’s movie magic. The story of Joy transcends its ostensibly sappy storyline and becomes a powerful meditation on the American dream — how it swindles hard-working people like Joy, how elusive and ephemeral it is to attain.
Much of the power of “Joy” comes from Jennifer Lawrence’s self-assured performance. She’s appeared in two previous O. Russell vehicles: in “Silver Linings Playbook” as the free-soul Tiffany and as the zany trophy-wife Rosalyn in “American Hustle.” Both of those roles demonstrated Lawrence’s ability to play crazy-sane people who were loveable, screwy fools (emphasis on the “fool” part) in love. But here, O. Russell asks her to take on a role of relative normalcy. She battles the obstacles the (patriarchal) world lobs at her, absorbing them like harmless pellets.
Russell doesn’t work with the same people for nothing. As Joy’s papa Rudy, De Niro compels you with a great late-career performance. He’s affecting as a romantic-geriatric searching for lasting love, avoiding messy mental meltdowns in the process. And as the scheming TV producer, Bradley Cooper both rivets and repulses. He embodies everything wrong with capitalist America: only in it for the money, snaky, cold, ruthless. With all of these potent personalities in play, Russell juggles them with the adroitness of an acrobat. Like the films of screwball director Leo McCarey (“The Awful Truth”), “Joy” sports a half-sketched feel of improvisation. His actors play off each other with reckless abandon, seemingly making things up on-the-fly and giving “Joy” a lyrical tug-of-war of rush and release. He always brings the manic best out of his actors, and “Joy” is no exception.
But beneath the movie’s cool sheath of kookiness lies a bitter core of irony. O. Russell, with his usual kinetic bombast, takes the piss out of corporate America, illuminating the dashed hopes of the middle class. When Joy peddles her Miracle Mop on Bradley Cooper’s hoity-toity QVC channel, it’s edited with the excitement of a climactic dance showdown and it’s impossible to take your eyes off the spectacle. But O. Russell is also asking us to consider what exactly we’re celebrating. The montages are purposely hollow spectacles (“Ooo, look at all the pretty lights lighting up in the control room!”) that reflect the dog-eat-dog world Joy rebels against. She is a creative, brilliant woman who exudes ingenuity and inventiveness. Her society, however, sees this as a threat. Both Cooper and her family try to write her off. They don’t see an assured woman like the one Lawrence and O. Russell create. They see a meager, mousy little woman who can’t possibly hold her own in this dollars-and-cents world of business.
But Joy is more than that, and she knows it. Joy’s friends and family push her into the background of every group scene, both repulsed by and terrified of her, tickled pink by her JLaw “cuteness” but secretly fearing her strength. Lawrence’s swaggering Joy shows that it takes a lot of willpower to prove the naysayers wrong…but it can be done. “Joy” reveals a reality that’s concealed by TV shows like “Shark Tank,” where creativity for its own sake is discouraged. O. Russell’s unwavering belief that the little gal can beat corporate power takes us back to the days of optimist-humanist directors like Frank Capra (“It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”) and it’s a much needed throwback.
Russell has attracted a lot of unwarranted hate over the years. The usual criticisms leveled against O. Russell are his “lack” of a cohesive, purposeful style and his “copping” of zippy directors like Martin Scorsese (“Goodfellas”). People see busy movement for its own sake, finding empty pizazz without substance, but they’re not stopping to reflect upon the in-the-moment beauty of an O. Russell movie. His comedies are neo-screwballs. Every camera movement is hilarious, imbued with a whipsnap ferocity that recalls even the most manic films of Howard Hawks. Like any great DJ, O. Russell mixes and scratches his own beats and bass-lines to create a highly personal style. His ability to weave increasingly complex stories grows with every new film. And with “Joy,” his penchant for sloppily exciting shenanigans has been bear-trapped into submission by the constraints of the biopic formula. The result is his most sedate — and perhaps his most mature — film to date.
“Joy” closes out this year on a hymnic yelp of excitement. It delights with laughter while eking out a few earned tears and sweatbeads. The haters will hate, but there’s no reason to listen to their cynical, anti-auteurist cries. O. Russell is one of the most interesting and exciting American directors working in Hollywood, and with “Joy,” he continues his personal promise of delivering high-quality films. It’s a serio-comic biopic par excellence. Don’t miss it; you’ll have a joyous ride.
Contact Carlos Valladares at cvall96 ‘at’ stanford.edu.