Jennifer Lawrence has her game face on in David O. Russell's Joy.

David O. Russell’s ‘Joy’ is the underrated ugly duckling of 2015

When I assess films, I often look for a degree of perfection, a sense that everything is in its right place and has a purpose within a film. Joy is very, very far from achieving this kind of precision. Rumors circulated prior to its release that there post-production struggles and that they were having difficulty completing the film in time for its Christmas day release. When the credits roll, you will see four editors listed, which I consider ample evidence to confirm the accuracy of those rumors. The film confirms them too, as it is a choppy, sloppy, and somewhat scatterbrained string of sequences. There is a lot to criticize about David O. Russell’s Joy. But at the end of the day, I just didn’t care because its just so much damn fun to hang out with these characters. What Joy may lack in precision, it more than makes up for in ambition and sheer entertainment.

To give Joy  a bit of context, David O. Russell has had something of an odd career for a filmmaker widely considered to be an A-lister and auteur. His first film, Spanking the Monkey, is a screwball comedy whose title is a euphemism for masturbation. Flirting with Disaster continued on this path offering a zany, Ben Stiller led comedy that feels a bit like Woody Allen with a dose of hallucinogens. Three Kings was the first work that really put his talent on display. Still within the realms of screwball comedy, he took on the Gulf War, an ambitious move that demonstrated his humor could be put to use, and even lend weight, to real issues and complex ideas.

I Heart Huckabees, arguably his weakest effort to date, is an existential comedy that sharply and passionately divides audiences. Russell himself has as good as dismissed the work as less than what he intended it to be. From there, his career fell into a bit of turmoil. After going through a divorce, Russell shot a comedy called Nailed starring Jake Gylenhaal. That production fell apart with only a couple of scenes left to shoot and didn’t get released at all until last February, when it was panned.

In 2010, Russell burst onto the scene with The Fighter, a boxing movie that he’d picked up after Darren Aronofsky bowed out. Earning several Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Best Director, The Fighter heralded a new era of David O. Russell films, from which we’ve so far seen Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, and now Joy. Collectively, these films show a mature artist fully coming to terms with the skill set he honed in the first decade or so of his career.

That brings us to Joy, which is the story of Joy Mangano, the inventor of the wonder mop. Like American Hustle, Russell’s directly previous film, Joy is a bit of revisionist history, a film “inspired by daring women, one in particular.” The key words there are “inspired by.” While this one may run closer to the true narrative than Hustle, which for the most part didn’t even use the real individual’s names, it still manages to tell its story at a distance from actual events and without ever mentioning the name “Mangano” or the term “wonder mop.” Russell is not a filmmaker that works with exact details. His films are about creating a mood and capturing the moment, not documenting history or even charting the cleanest path through a narrative structurally. His films are often created more on set and in the editing room than on the scripted page, something that may have held this one back a bit.

Joy opens with a voice over of Joy’s grandmother, who periodically cuts in as narrator to shape the film like some kind of fairy tale. Joy is in her twenties or thirties at this point, divorced and with kids. She lives with her mother, who is socially inept and desperately needs Joy to manage all affairs, including the plumbing in her own bedroom. She and her ex-husband/best friend Tony (Edgar Ramirez) are on great terms, and he resides in the basement. He is a failed singer, which makes Joy the primary breadwinner.

Things are abruptly complicated when Joy’s father’s new lover decides to drop him off at her doorstep having had enough of him. He is a handful, and occasionally a drunk. He is not on good terms with Joy’s mother and he clashes with Tony. He runs a moderately successful auto mechanic shop that loses business as a result of the gun range directly next door.

Jennifer Lawrence blows off some steam as Joy Mangano with a gun in her hand.

All of Russell’s films are dysfunctional family films. If Woody Allen is the go-to American auteur of love triangles, Russell is the equivalent for zany family drama. Joy is no exception. Even when the film fails structurally or zips by too fast as a result of rushed and imprecise editing (something Hustle is almost equally guilty of), the characters of Joy are just as strong a lineup as Russell has ever conceived of, and the performances bring each to life in spectacular fashion.

The fun is not confined to the characters and the performances though. For as much as I’ve complained about the sloppy structure of Joy, there is undeniable ambition at play, and some of it really lands. For example, although Joy is married when we enter the film, early on we cut back seventeen years and learn about the fallout of her parent’s marriage and how that sprung her into a college relationship that became an early marriage. The memory is triggered by Joy reading one of her kids a story about cicadas that teaches her that they hibernate for seventeen years, lying dormant before awakening. This, along with an incident of cleaning up broken glass on a boat, triggers her to awaken and become the matriarch she was meant to be.

This flashback sequence is beautifully orchestrated and may be a tip of the hat to Citizen Kane, which is cited in the opening montage as well. That said, when the film attempts to do a similar time loop, jumping into the future at the very end, it feels like a whiff. Everything is going fine and then it jars the viewer when it suddenly cuts back and the movie ends. So structurally, the film has a lot of ambition, some of which works, some of which does not.

Joy designs the mop to overcome the issues she has mopping up glass, getting her hand cut. She uses her father’s new girlfriend (Isabella Rosselini) to gain investments, but then has trouble selling the product. What ultimately gets her in is a QVC rep (Bradley Cooper) who gives her a shot to promote her product on television in infomercial format. In my opinion, this is where the film really takes off. For the first forty minutes or so, the film is enjoyable enough, but it feels like an overwhelming barrage of information, all delivered in great sequences, but sequences that feel forcibly strung together without creating much flow. It feels like a race to get to the finish line for a while, with pop song after pop song cutting in for ten to thirty seconds at a time. The damn thing needs to breathe, and when Bradley Cooper comes on, it does.

Many complications emerge beyond this point in the narrative involving business and the nature of corporations, patent laws, and familial affairs, but I will leave that up for you to experience. As with any Russell film, Joy is about the feeling more than the narrative, so there is not much to spoil, but I also wonder how much there is to be gained from too much analysis of just the raw narrative. The film’s form, it’s flashbacks and its occasional flourishes of dreamy surrealism, are surely worth looking at though.

The opening sequence is a fictitious, over-the top soap opera that Joy’s mom wastes away her life watching. This connects to Joy as soap operas were designed for the stay at home mom, something she rebels against. Later, she has a dream where she enters the soap opera and gets trapped and suffocated by that world. Rather than watch television, she gets herself on television and pushes her product designed to make the lives of other mothers and housewives easier.

Joy’s rejection of the soap opera world, as well as her grandmother’s fairy tale advice to get married and have beautiful children, keeping her inventions to herself, shape Joy’s arc in a strong and consistent manner, which is part of what holds the film together as so many narrative threads fly by chaotically. To add to this, as a child she asserts that it is her superpower to not need a prince, effectively equating the soap opera world to the fairy tale encouragement, and flatly rejecting both.

All in all I think Joy is a marvelous film, full of… well, joy. It’s a film you have to admire warts and all because it has warts aplenty. But in watching it for a second and third time over the weekend, I found myself caring less and less about the flaws even though I continued to see them. I also think that to a certain extent, these flaws are present in all of Russell’s films, though maybe not the extent that they are problematic here. I think if you are a filmmaker who favors the feel of a live set over heavy scripting and storyboarding, moments of real life are captured at the expense of narrative and structural perfection. And in each of Russell’s films, Joy happily included, I have found his approach rewarding.

Watch the trailer for Joy:

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