David O. Russell delights in supreme disorder – every movie the director has ever made bears a signature sense of organized chaos, of big personalities clashing with one another so loudly and violently they threaten to escape the edges of his carefully composed frame. Russell’s willingness to simply roll the camera and document that mayhem, trusting his actors to do the heavy lifting and only bringing in stylistic flourishes when the material calls for it, is a rare trait in a Hollywood director. But in Joy, it backfires on him catastrophically – after expertly traversing three distinctly tricky thematic tightropes in The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, Russell loses his balance in his latest film, and the chaos he’s usually so adept at orchestrating instead overwhelms both him and the picture.
The movie, a very shaggy biopic, is Russell’s third (and unquestionably least fruitful) collaboration with lead actress and apparent muse Jennifer Lawrence, who takes on the role of Joy Mangano, a single mother trying to keep her thoroughly dysfunctional family from falling apart at the expense of her own dreams and ambitions. Her cantankerous father (Robert De Niro) lives in the basement alongside her failed-musician ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez), while her couch-bound, near-catatonic mother (Virginia Madsen) tunes into daytime soaps and out of reality, half-sister Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm) glares at her with open distaste, and daughter Christie (played alternately by twins Gia and Aundrea Gadsby) watches on with wide eyes. It’s about as much of a zoo as you’d imagine.
The sole voice of reason is grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd), who agonizes over seeing Joy, once a bright-eyed little girl full of big ideas, waste her potential cleaning up everyone else’s messes. She wants Joy to follow through and capitalize on the promise of her high school days (we’re reminded multiple times that she was class valedictorian), but all Grandma’s prodding does is cause Joy to mourn the loss of a more fulfilling life.
That all changes one day, when Joy has a flash of inspiration while cleaning up red wine and draws up blueprints for the world’s first self-wringing mop. It’s a great idea, one with market appeal, and she knows it. Suddenly imbued with new purpose, Joy coaxes her father’s new lover (Isabella Rossellini) into giving her start-up money and toils away following through on her vision, eventually ending up in QVC headquarters, where she convinces a smooth-talking, consummately corporate executive (Bradley Cooper) to take a chance on her product.
Of course, every step Joy takes is complemented by someone, be it a doubting family member, exploitative business partner or apathetic stranger, openly attempting to hold her back. Russell (who penned the script and splits story credit with Bridesmaids scribe Annie Mumolo) throws so many obstacles in Joy’s path that we learn not to share in her ecstasy when something clicks into place – another stumbling block is always right around the corner.
That storytelling technique is one of Joy‘s biggest flaws, essentially reducing the real story of one woman’s rise through the cutthroat world of commerce to a contrived, synthetic-feeling mess of one-note characters, painfully awkward first-draft dialogue, unseemly clumps of exposition and bizarre tonal shifts. Russell had a great premise in Joy, but he tries to tell four or five different versions of it at once, none of them particularly well. And many of his directorial choices just flat-out don’t work, from repetitive, mind-numbingly dull dream sequences to the supremely irritating voice-over narration by a character who dies midway through the film (but somehow still keeps narrating).
It doesn’t help that the weird narrative structure of the pic keeps jumping back and forth in time for no reason. Or that every character apart from Joy is a cartoon antagonist bent on undermining her achievements. Or that characters come and go without contributing anything of value to the overall plot, only existing to eat up the runtime and come out with very quotable things no real person would ever even consider saying. Or that Russell follows Joy’s third-act nadir, an emotional breakdown in which she tearfully tears her ideas off a wall and denounces her dreams as having been unrealistic from the very start, with a scene in which she calmly confronts one of her biggest opponents and brilliantly outmaneuvers them, all without so much as raising her voice. (The only conclusion to be drawn from the way in which those very important scenes are carelessly mashed together is that cutting your own hair will cause all your problems to disintegrate into nothingness.)
But Joy‘s most monumental failure isn’t its ungainly pacing, cluttered appearance, bad dialogue or wonky framework – it’s the glacial remove with which Russell regards and Lawrence plays the film’s central figure.
Bizarrely, despite having a full two hours with Joy, the film never manages to get under her skin. Lawrence effectively conveys all the emotions that Russell demands of her, from rage to heartbreak to absolute exhaustion, but Joy just never gels as a character, and her attitudes and actions vary so drastically that she feels less human and more mechanical, programmed by Russell to give whatever response he needs in order to keep his movie shambling along.
There’s a truly terrible scene where she sits in her office, giving an African-American couple with an idea the same kind of opportunity to execute it that she seized years prior, and it comes off as so laughably bogus that you want to hold your nose to escape the smell of supreme bullshit. In that moment, it becomes clear not only that we’ve never really known or understood Joy as a character, but that neither have Russell or maybe even Lawrence (though the actress admittedly had her hands tied with the dire nature of the script she was given).
In attempting to bring a real woman’s life to the big screen, Russell instead shrinks her down into a mythic, fairy-tale figure, the quintessentially American dreamer too inherently good to give up on her ambitions, no matter how many obstacles she has to overcome in the process. That treatment has the net effect of making the whole film seem half-sketched, because there’s nothing genuine in Joy – or really in Joy – to latch onto. The two hours drift by, some scenes protracted and others rushed but none legitimately engaging. Especially in its largely pointless final stretch, Russell’s film feels less biopic and more infomercial, like a dopey attempt to honor the woman that instead sanitizes, sanctifies and simplifies her until she no longer feels human. And where’s the value, let alone the joy, in that?
Joy's most monumental failure isn't its uneven pacing, miserable dialogue or wonky framework - it's the glacial remove with which Russell regards and Lawrence plays the film's eponymous dreamer.