By John Corrado
★★★★ (out of 4)
The story of Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence), highly successful entrepreneur and inventor of the self-wringing Miracle Mop, might not sound like obvious fodder for an awards season biopic, lest the basis for gripping entertainment.
But in the hands of director David O. Russell, and star Jennifer Lawrence in their third fruitful collaboration together, this story of a woman carving out her own place in the world by inventing a household cleaning product, feels downright electric. The result is an extremely entertaining and emotionally affective dramedy, that works as a genuinely inspiring female empowerment fable.
The film opens in flashback, where we are introduced to Joy as a little girl with a penchant for making stuff and finding ways to fix things, as narrated by her grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd), who always saw something special in her. When we flash forward to her adulthood, Joy is living in a falling apart old house with her somewhat dysfunctional family, and struggling to support the two kids she has with ex-husband Tony (Édgar Ramírez), an aspiring lounge singer who resides in the basement and remains her closest confidante, even in divorce.
Her mother (Virginia Madsen) lives upstairs, rarely leaving her bedroom and spending her days taping and watching terrible soap operas, a routine that gets shaken up when her firecracker ex-husband and Joy’s father (Robert De Niro) shows up at the door, looking for a place to stay. These scenes unfold in the same vein as David O. Russell’s previous dysfunctional family dramedies, like Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter, with his constantly moving camera brilliantly capturing the action as it unfolds, and immersing us in the gripping and delightfully chaotic dynamic between these characters.
It’s clear that Joy is an overworked provider for her family, but then a series of events lead her to come up with the idea for a revolutionary new mop, with a detachable head that’s self-wringing and machine washable, hand spun from a three hundred foot loop of continuous cotton. Begging for an investment from her father’s new girlfriend Trudy (Isabella Rosselini), and setting up a makeshift manufacturing plant in his auto shop, Joy creates her dream mop. But she faces an even greater challenge in actually marketing and selling the product, trying desperately to build a business while staying out of debt.
This brings her to Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), a smooth but understanding home shopping channel representative who takes a chance on her, and provides their best hope of actually being able to get her much needed invention into other homes. This is also one of the film’s best stretches, reuniting Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper to gripping effect. Following them as they walk and talk through the dressing rooms and sound stages of his revolutionary TV station, their sharp dialogue crackles along at an energetic clip, compellingly exploring the innerworkings of both marketing and live television.
This is a film that makes us completely invested in the story of a mop, and that’s no small feat, drawing suspense out of patent meetings and fraudulent copyright claims, even building genuine tension during a climactic hotel room confrontation. Yes, the film is sometimes sprawling and jumps around in terms of narrative, but I also kinda loved it for that. And even if the screenplay plays fast and loose with the facts of its “based on a true story” claims, as David O. Russell rightfully or wrongfully took over and rewrote much of Annie Mumolo’s original script, there is an energy here that is rarely seen in other biopics.
The entire ensemble cast is uniformly excellent, notably including captivating supporting work from Bradley Cooper and Édgar Ramírez, and anchored by another gripping turn from Jennifer Lawrence, who commands every single frame. At this point, it’s clear she is a superstar in every sense of the term, and Joy is a shining vehicle for her. It’s hard to think of a better representation of her star power, as the actress effortlessly shows off both her crack comic timing and naturalistic dramatic abilities, shifting tones in character as seamlessly as David O. Russell does behind the camera.
There are a lot of the filmmaker’s usual quirky character impulses on display in Joy, but the film also has something genuine to say about ambition and working hard to achieve your dreams, especially in the face of insurmountable odds. Like how Silver Linings Playbook was a far richer and more nuanced character drama than the romantic comedy it got unfairly pigeonholed as, Joy is much more of a drama than the marketing would lead you to believe, defying both genre conventions and gender stereotypes.
When Joan Rivers (Melissa Rivers, eerily channeling her late mother in a brief cameo) suggests that Joy should wear a skirt for her first TV appearance to show off her long legs, she opts instead to stick with her standard uniform of a blouse and dress pants, because it better represents who she is. The story’s themes of a woman trying to make it on her own in a rich man’s world, are perhaps best represented visually during a tense climactic confrontation where Joy goes up against a group of men who hold the residing power over her, yet are shown in stark contrast wearing sloppy casual clothes.
Early on, Joy says in flashback that she has a special power where she doesn’t need a prince, and this is one of the greatest strengths of both the movie and title character. Joy is able to stand tall on her own, supported and sometimes held down by both the men and women in her life. The film thankfully doesn’t try to force her into a romantic subplot with Neil Walker, allowing their chemistry to remain simply as coworkers and “friends in commerce.” The closest thing she has to a man in her life is her divorced husband, who is happy to live in her basement and help raise the kids, but their relationship flourishes more as platonic friends than it ever did in marriage.
Everything about David O. Russell’s instincts as a filmmaker click with me as a viewer. There is a certain energy about his work, from the way his camera moves, to his pitch perfect soundtrack choices, and the gripping performances he always draws out of the actors. His unique style as a filmmaker once again matches up perfectly with Jennifer Lawrence’s sharp sensibilities as a performer, in another prime example of a director and actor working together in perfect unison. There is a shared electricity to their work that I just can’t get enough of, and Joy has this energy in spades.
There is a certain feeling that I have gotten after watching almost all of David O. Russell’s films, a mix of exhilaration and pure pleasure, like I’ve witnessed something that feels fresh and new the first time, and will only get better on repeated viewings. And as Jennifer Lawrence walks towards the screen in slow motion at the end of Joy, to the strains of Brittany Howard’s vocally perfect cover of Cream’s “I Feel Free,” I had this exact same feeling. I can’t wait to see what these two do next.