A woman invents a miracle mop and finds herself knee-deep in screwball dysfunction in David O. Russell’s uneven fable about working-class America
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper
Directed by: David O. Russell
Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Running time: 124 minutes
By Jay Stone
Anyone looking for a quick course in the excesses of capitalism, U.S.A. division, could do worse than attending two Hollywood films: The Big Short and Joy comprise the world’s quickest MBA course, a lesson in connivance, industry, greed and inventiveness, all the pillars of the modern economy. It’s probably no coincidence that there’s screwball comedy in there as well.
The Big Short, Adam McKay’s comic take on the mortgage bubble of the mid-2000s, is the more modern and complex story. You come away convinced that synthetic collateralized debt obligations undermined a collapsing housing market that took a lot of innocent people down with them. The fact that you’re not exactly sure what the hell they are is one of the strengths — the presiding metaphor — of the entire fraudulent coup.
Joy is a more straightforward tale: a woman invents a cleverly designed mop, tries to sell it, and runs up against the usual villainy — intellectual theft, sexism, the reluctance of a timid populace to embrace new mop technology — of the rags-to-riches fable. It’s classic Americana, the kind of story you might hear about Thomas Edison, say, or Alexander Graham Bell, and if the stakes aren’t as high (build-a-better-mop lessons can’t really compete with the invention of the telephone or the electric light) Joy is unsurpassed in the eccentric narrative hiccups of both its plot and its characters.
It reunites director David O. Russell with stars Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, and Bradley Cooper, who together made the slightly less predictable Silver Linings Playbook (Lawrence and Cooper were also in Russell’s American Hustle.) Joy doesn’t have the coherent madness of those tales of modern American angst; actually, it’s a kind of a mess. But it’s a great mess, a staggering attempt to update something that Frank Capra might have made and place it in the bi-polar present.
Lawrence, calling on deep reserves of the straight-faced calm that is the secret weapon of such madcap adventures, plays Joy Manago, a put-upon single mom whose house is one of those insane asylums of offbeat supporting characters that gave such a rich texture to older, classic film comedies. Her mother Terry (Virginia Madsen) lives in her bedroom, watching soap operas all day and bemoaning the real-life soap of her own tragic life; i.e. her divorce from Rudy (De Niro), who arrives on the doorstep one day because he’s been thrown out by his new wife. He’s dispatched to the basement to join Joy’s ex-, Tony (Edgar Ramirez) a failed would-be pop star who — like many of this mad crew — is a mixture of good-heartedness and single-minded ignorance. He’s the kind of guy who would live in his ex-wife’s cellar.
Throw in Joy’s own two children and a sister (Elisabeth Rohm) who quietly seethes with resentment over her own foiled dreams, and you have a suitably raucous family, a microcosm of good old fashioned self-delusion.
This early part of Joy churns with noisy energy: you’re never quite sure where the movie is heading and Russell — who also co-wrote the screenplay — tends to get lost in the near-jokes and messy madness. The film, which is loosely based on a true story, can’t settle on a tone: it feints at satire, then races off to corporate adventure story before settling back into dark drama.
At the centre is Joy’s invention, the Miracle Mop, a cleaning device that is easy to wring out — Joy thinks of it one muddy day in her own kitchen — and becomes the key to her financial salvation. With the help of Rudy and his wealthy girlfriend (Isabella Rossellini, all arch superiority), Joy creates a prototype and talks herself into a gig on a home shopping TV network, the launching pad for such bizarre, if lucrative, brainstorms. There, an executive named Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper, whose late entry into the film exacerbates its lop-sided structure) helps her become one of those cable stars — like Joan Rivers (played by her daughter Melissa) who had a second career hawking jewelry on TV — who aren’t just selling mops (or jewelry). They’re also selling an idea of themselves.
There’s lots more to come, including a third- (or fourth-) act twist of malfeasance that demands poor Joy marshal even more resources to fight for her claim to a revolution in floor-cleaning. By then you’re as wrung out as one of Joy’s mops: is this a soaring paean to perseverance, a portrait of real-life dysfunction, or an elaborate joke that pretends to find wider meaning in a better way to swab away the dirt?
Mostly it’s a showcase for Lawrence, who rides over the film’s murderous bumps with the everyday grace of a working-class heroine. There’s no joy in Mudville, as they say, but at least there’s no mud either.
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