It’s a testament to the strength of his talent and vision that David O’Russell is readily regarded as one of today’s greatest filmmakers, despite the fact that he has made just seven films – discounting the disowned Accidental Love – in the past two decades. With topics ranging from the opportunities of war (Three Kings) to blue-collar boxing (The Fighter) and the exquisite art of the con (American Hustle), O’Russell’s screenplays demonstrate a colour and eloquence that are expertly serviced by his masterful direction. It’s an exemplary body of work that sets a very high bar; one which his latest, screwball drama Joy, struggles to reach.
Hollywood’s golden girl and regular O’Russell collaborator Jennifer Lawrence stars as real-life entrepreneur Joy Mangano, a young mother struggling to cope with both her dysfunctional family and mounting debt until her invention of the Miracle Mop turned her life around. It’s a fascinating story but, as a film, lacks focus and drive, playing more like creative experiment than finished product.
In his highly-dramatised telling of Mangano’s story, O’Russell has weaved elements of the traditional, including fairy-tale narration from Joy’s grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd), and the fantastical. The film is framed by an fictional soap opera, and these OTT elements bleed into the narrative; most notably in the form of Isabella Rossellini as the wonderfully extravagant girlfriend of Joy’s father. Intended to convey the haphazard nature of Joy’s rags to riches journey, O’Russell never satisfactorily lands the film’s tone and, at times, it proves a distraction.
While Lawrence is arguably too young for the role, particularly when the film flashes forward in later years, she is a good fit for such an interesting and inspiring character and embodies Mangano with gusto. Unfortunately, almost everyone else is reduced to caricature, and worst off is Robert De Niro as Joy’s clown of a father, whose detrimental influence on his daughter is reduced to a combination of buffoonery and unbelievably selfish soliloquies. Virginia Madsen has more to play with as Joy’s needy mother, but has nowhere near enough screen time.
Only Bradley Cooper, as QVC boss Neil Walker, really holds his own against Lawrence, and their scenes at the then-fledgling shopping network are standout moments. The dramatic and artistic choreography at play when Neil is demonstrating the machinations of the channel and, later, when Joy sells her mop on air give glimpses of O’Russell’s ambition for the film. In the latter, we finally see Joy stripped of artifice; passionate, articulate and dedicated, she showcases a breathtaking intensity of emotion in which her motivation and drive are finally given centre stage.
UK Theatrical Release Date: January 1, 2016
This review was originally published by The List