After seeing Joy, I said to a colleague, “I wish this movie was about QVC,” referring to the home shopping network whose call letters stand for “Quality, Value and Convenience” – a network that somehow still exists. What a weird sentence! For the life of me, I never thought I’d say such a thing. In Joy – the new film directed by David O. Russell, starring Jennifer Lawrence – about 20 minutes or so of the film is dedicated to the shopping network and, in those 20 minutes or so, the movie has real life. Jennifer Lawrence’s Joy is trying to sell a new mop she invented. Bradley Cooper plays Neil, who runs QVC. Mellisa Rivers plays Joan Rivers. What a trip! I really enjoyed these 20 minutes or so.
David O. Russell is a polarizing director. He has his ardent defenders and he has his fierce critics. His career hit a stall after the release of 2004’s I Heart Huckabees (for numerous reasons), until Mark Wahlberg insisted he direct The Fighter. In 2013, I asked Wahlberg if he feels he rescued Russell from “director jail”:
Oh, 100 percent. Every single person on the movie said “absolutely not, over my dead body.” But I just figured out a way to get it done because I certainly knew how talented he was — a lot of people knew how talented he was — but a lot of people didn’t want to deal with it. The best time to get somebody is when they really need it.
After The Fighter, Russell made Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. Between these three movies, Russell received three Academy Award nominations for Best Director and all three of these movies were nominated for Best Picture. Even more remarkable: These three movies combined have grossed $616 million in an era when movies like these aren’t supposed to make a lot of money anymore.
It’s not unusual for directors to work with a lot of the same actors over and over, but maybe Russell needs a change of pace. Because where his prior three films had energy and life, Joy feels stale. (Or, Joy has no joy, if you like obvious puns). For most of Joy, I couldn’t stop thinking about how great Silver Linings Playbook is and how everyone in that movie seemed to be having fun – which is the opposite of how everyone looks (many of the same actors) in Joy.
Contrary to almost every piece of advertising in support of Joy, the film is loosely based on the life of Joy Mangano, who invented the Miracle Mop. Joy (Lawrence) is a dreamer, but her parents (Robert De Niro and Virginia Madsen) do not support those dreams, so Joy finds herself working a job she hates in the customer service department at a large airline. She also often finds herself fantasizing she’s in a soap opera, starring opposite Susan Lucci – flights of fancy that stem from her mother’s obsession with soap operas. At first, this is kind of fun in a, “Oh, I wonder where this is going?” kind of way. But those scenes go nowhere, and then kind of just disappear from the movie. (A lot of plot points feel like this in Joy, things just disappear. I suspect there’s a much longer edit of this movie somewhere.)
After cleaning up some wine and broken glass, Joy gets the idea for the Miracle Mop (which is, strangely, never said in the movie) after she cuts her hand while wringing out the mop. You know, just re-reading that last sentence… That sounds like a good movie. Jennifer Lawrence playing the creator of the Miracle Mop. It sounds wacky! For whatever reason, the actual film’s tone is tense and overbearing. If Russell had just inserted some of the goofball antics we saw in American Hustle into Joy, the movie would have been much better off for it.
There’s a flash-forward at the end that makes no sense. Without giving away the particulars, Joy is walking down the street as a voiceover tells us and shows us about her future. It’s an odd scene. I have no inside knowledge, but it certainly feels like the last 30 minutes of the movie were cut out and, instead, we get this “flash-forward” that just tries to wrap it all up for us. (Which it doesn’t really because I still have one lingering question about a major plot point.)
Joy is a frustrating movie because I can’t remember the last time I wanted to like a movie so much and it just wouldn’t let me. I am an admirer of David O. Russell’s work. The cast is obviously great. But it just never comes together.
I’ve been seeing some rustling that a few actors were miscast. There’s probably some truth in that. Jennifer Lawrence is still, somehow, only 25, yet here she’s playing someone who (at least at times in the movie) is in her 40s. But Lawrence is great at what she does and mostly pulls off the age discrepancy. So, I don’t think that’s altogether it. Part of it just feels like trying to get the band back together and attempting to recreate the magic from Silver Linings Playbook — and it just didn’t turn out that way. You can almost see it on the actors faces in the movie, “All the pieces are in place, why isn’t this working again?”
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.