If American Hustle was supposed to be David O Russell’s Goodfellas (which it wasn’t), then Joy can rightly be called David O Russell’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. A sort of rags to riches self made woman story wrapped up in a soap opera fairy tale, the film is typical Russell in that it seems to be doing every single genre at once. Yet, at least its slightly more contained than American Hustle, and Jennifer Lawrence gets to play a character that feels like a real person, rather than a caricature of herself.
Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) was creative and bright as a young girl, but dealing with her family for so long has weared her down. Her grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd) encourages her, but can’t do much else to help her. Her mother Terry (Virginia Madsen) seems trapped in sort of a soap opera delusion ever since she divorced Joy’s father, Rudy (Robert De Niro), and doesn’t get out of bed hardly ever. Rudy fares slightly better, though he has anger issues and develops a very condescending attitude towards Joy after he starts dating a rich widow, Trudy (Isabella Rossellini). Her ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez) is drain on her resources but at least helps her raise their two kids. With struggling to keep up the house with all of these people in it, and work at the same time, Joy hardly has time to do anything else. So when she finally make a decision to fulfill her early promise, to invent and market a revolutionary mop, it ends up being a fairly big struggle.
So much of the film is devoted to Joy struggling valiantly only to fail miserably that it seems like it could be a bit of a downer. It’s true that we get a lot of the rise and hardly any of the good times once she gets there. Though I suppose the film is a biopic, it really doesn’t feel like much of one with all of the craziness and genre bending that Russell throws in, as well as the lack of specifics in the story. Joy’s last name is never used, and the mythic fairy tale nature of the story is frequently highlighted.
So much of the criticism of Joy seems directed at the film’s messiness; a criticism I understand but feel it applies to Russell’s previous American Hustle more than this movie. I concede that the soap opera gimmick Russell develops in the beginning isn’t really sustained for the rest of the film, but it still is interesting and gives way to some very compelling scenes. He seems to throw in a lot of metaphors for metaphors sake (cicadas for example), but as least in this movie you know who the main character is and what they want. That’s always useful to be able to keep track of. The supporting characters really are the supporting characters in this movie.
That’s probably in part due to Jennifer Lawrence occupying the main role. She seems to be getting most of the praise for this movie, which is deserved. It’s nice to see her play a regular person here, one that seems a little more separated from her off-screen persona than the other roles Russell usually gives her. That might mean she’s a little less of a colorful presence onscreen, but being Jennifer Lawrence is still endlessly watchable even if they made her a bit more realistic.
I liked Joy. It feels like a much more low key film, but maybe that’s because I moderated my expectations based on the disappointing reviews the film has been getting. It’s not the best movie you’ve ever seen in your life, but it mixes up the biopic format in an interesting way and gives Jennifer Lawrence a great part. It’s definitely worth seeing.
Long story short: 3/4 stars
For Further Reading: