‘Joy’ is another shapeless non-entity from one of cinema’s greatest disappointments

By Nate Taskin

(Joy Facebook page)
(Joy Facebook page)

I’m done with David O. Russell. His films were once fearless, visceral and passionate. Even if what he produced was often gross and harsh, and although horror tales always surfaced around his production process, that final artistic fruit always resonated. Those days are over.

His recent work starts to show a disturbing trend: empty, theme-less, pseudo-Scorsesean and morally dishonest. He no longer cares about the emotional truth; it seems he just wants to chase that Oscar gold. Russell’s latest film, the weightless “Joy,” has cemented my belief that the once-creative filmmaker just doesn’t care anymore.

The film follows the true story of Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence), a bored and endlessly stressed woman plagued with toxic family members and financial burdens, haunted by the possibilities of the looming future. As the grating narration of Joy’s grandmother explains, the inventive Joy has an epiphany on a family boat trip when she slices her hands open as she wipes up a mess made by a broken wine glass.

This light bulb moment leads to the invention of the Miracle Mop, a device made from continuous cotton loops attached to a head that can be wrung and reused at later occasions. As she seizes on this genius invention of hers, Joy embarks on a (clumsily-paced) journey of self-actualization, with the hope of fulfillment of her true potential.

Can Joy patent her product idea? Can she convince the QVC shopping network to give the Miracle Mop the airtime it deserves? Can she pay back her massive debt and dodge bankruptcy? Can she prove her self-worth in front of her doubtful family? Does Russell know how to make any of this material engage the viewer? I shall not spoil the answer to the first few questions, but I can say with certainty that the answer to the final question is a definitive “nope.”

Jennifer Lawrence continues to waste her time in mismatched roles. In all three of her Russell collaborations – “Silver Linings Playbook,” “American Hustle” and now “Joy” – she plays roles meant for women a decade older than her. The real Joy Mangano was 34 when she invented the Miracle Mop. Lawrence was 24 at the time of pre-production. One of our most charismatic stars, the mainstream film industry has never found her a character that has matched the youthful determination of Ree Dolly in “Winter’s Bone.”

Her casting speaks to the fear Hollywood has of starring roles for women over 30 and is exemplified in a bizarre line from Joy’s mother in which she tells her that she’s not a spring chicken anymore. Talented “old” actresses – I can’t put down enough quotation marks here – are shut out of deserved parts and talented young actresses get parts they’re unsuited for.

That’s not to say that any other of the other actors fare much better. At least Jennifer Lawrence does her best with what she’s given. Every other character is reduced to either a caricature or an anthropomorphic plot device. Jackie’s (Dascha Polanco) personality revolves solely around the fact that she’s Joy’s friend. Robert De Niro demonstrates his inner quirkiness as Joy’s father by smashing plates in an atonal fit. Bradley Cooper continues to prove himself to be one of the dullest actors alive as he phones in his performance as an idealistic QVC producer. I know he’s idealistic because the movie tells me so.

The cast backstabs and supports Joy in equal measure and Russell doesn’t seem to have the faintest clue on what to make of them. Their personalities change with the tides and the only consistency is their constant barrage of obnoxious faux-spontaneous, faux-improvisational dialogue that Russell used to be so good at in jet-black comedies like “Three Kings” or “Flirting With Disaster.” Now that sickening laughter has been replaced by just a general longing for the scenes to end.

How can I, in good conscience, praise a movie for any naked honesty when it’s so ashamed of its own premise? “Joy” seems actively embarrassed over the fact that it’s about a mop. It does not even get to its central dramatic impetus until a third of the way through and meanwhile, we must endure a fallen Jenga tower of a narrative rife with misshapen scenes cobbled together through an asinine edit job.

Russell opens the film with a title card that pays tribute to “daring women,” which leaves the vague initial impression that “Joy” will carry a message of feminist perseverance in the face of patriarchal adversity. If the script went beyond a first draft, that theme may have cohered. Gender dynamics take a backseat to the machinations of the plot until Russell remembers the statement he wrote on the first page, and then he tosses out a half-assed line here or there that pays lip service to some sexist double standard without actual examination of it.

Sometimes “Joy” wants to be about working class struggle, sometimes about the hindrances of the family, sometimes about the politics of advertising, sometimes about how the American Dream means that anyone can “make it” regardless of background. The problem is that it never has anything worthwhile to say about those topics, and jettisons those themes altogether once it gets bored with them.

As the credits rolled, I wrote in my notepad, in giant letters, “What does this movie have to say?” After careful deliberation, with every angle considered, I can only conclude, “Absolutely nothing.”

Nate Taskin can be reached at [email protected]