It’s hard to put a label on what it takes to be a success. Some people will you tell you that it is all about ambition. If you can dream it, you can do it. Some people will tell you that success is all about perseverance; winners never quit and quitters never win. Most people will tell you that success is not the key to happiness, but happiness is the key to success. For David O. Russell, success and indeed his latest feature Joy are about three things: hard work, patience and humility. The hard work comes from his cast, and in particular Jennifer Lawrence’s powerhouse performance; the patience comes from his audience, who take in the simmering and slow-burning depth of O. Russell’s thoughtful screenplay; and the humility comes from O. Russell himself as he delivers some of his most stripped-back and emotionally honest work yet. Joy isn’t a film that will resonate with everyone, but for O. Russell fans and those who like honest and relatable stories, Joy offers a wildly entertaining and contemplative ride on how you can make the seemingly impossible, possible.
Joy follows the incredible true story of Home Shopping Network queen Joy Mangano. A lifelong inventor, Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence) is a single New Jersey mother who is struggling to make ends meet whilst looking after the business of her father Rudy (Robert De Niro), her ex-husband lounge singer Tony (Édgar Ramírez), her soap opera-addicted mother Terry (Virginia Madsen), two children and loving grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd). Joy struggles to balance her incredibly complicated home life with her two jobs, until she comes up with the first-ever self-wringing mop, the now famous Miracle Mop.
There is an obvious trajectory in most rags-to-riches stories and Mangano’s, despite being a little more out of the ordinary, is no different. Despite that, writer and director O. Russell (who did have story help from Bridesmaids co-writer Annie Mumolo) injects Joy with his now trademark slick sequences, snappy dialogue and fast-paced storytelling. When the film focuses on Joy’s business and her determination to succeed, O. Russell’s writing and direction shine. Indeed, some of the film’s strongest sequences are the ones where we, the audience, are being sold on the idea of something, be it Joy’s mop, the QVC sales system or even the very idea of hope and success itself.
Slightly less successful, however, is the film when it moves into more emotional territory by exploring the dynamic between Joy and her family. Although there are strong familial relationships within the movie, particularly in the relationship between Joy and her grandmother Mimi, who serves as the film’s narrator, other parts of the film involving Joy’s family feel forced. This is particularly evident as the film accelerates its third act to get to its conclusion. Despite burning through plot in this section, the film sags under the weight of seemingly unnecessary conflicts between Joy, her father and half-sister (played by an eternally snob-nosed Elisabeth Rohm). However, this is but a minor quibble, especially given the chemistry and likeability of the cast.
Undoubtedly, a big part of this comes down to Joy’s star, Jennifer Lawrence. Her performance is nothing short of incredible here. Equal parts hardworking, frustrated, endearing and incredibly likeable, Lawrence’s acting sensibilities are spot on. This is her show and O. Russell gives her free and total reign over her portrayal. Right from the time she enters the screen until the second she leaves it, Lawrence is utterly compelling, conveying Joy’s sense of purpose and determination effortlessly. As Joy moves from failure to success, so too does Lawrence become more persuasive and believable as a woman determined to let nothing and no one get in the way of success.
Turning in an equally successful and convincing performance is Bradley Cooper as HSN network executive Neil Walker. Although his role is reduced here, Cooper perfectly encapsulates the tone O. Russell is striving for from the second he is on screen. Recapturing some of the effervescent chemistry the two shared in Silver Linings Playbook, Cooper plays perfectly off Lawrence’s committed and convincing Mangano, being every bit the persuasive, brash, loud, talkative and overblown dreamer that you would expect of a network executive. The scenes that these two share are some of the best of the movie. It is in their moments that Joy’s dreams, talents and overall strain really come to life. Madsen, De Niro, Ramirez, Ladd and Isabella Rossellini (playing De Niro’s newfound love, Trudy) all have something to offer, playing their characters with the right amount of sincerity or contempt in the support or dissuasion of Joy on her journey.
On paper, Joy could seem like your average rags-to-riches tale of a woman becoming an overnight success. But, in actuality, Joy is a celebration of the human spirit. There is a certain resonance that comes from its story, a combined effort of O. Russell’s emotionally honest and stripped-back screenplay and the incredibly powerful, earnest and entirely believable performance from Lawrence, further cementing her place as one of Hollywood’s true leading ladies. Whilst being somewhat bogged down in overdrawn family drama, Joy manages to overcome this minor fault to deliver a story that celebrates hard work, drive and the power of believing. It’s about believing in not just yourself and your dreams, but – perhaps more significantly for O. Russell and his characters – in what you are selling. For that reason alone, audiences should leave the theatre with some joy of their own. Go find some.
THE REEL SCORE: 9/10