The men and women in David O. Russell’s films are often damaged goods from way back. They all have their reasons for having major personality defects, but there’s no getting around the fact that most of us would have a hard time dealing with them in the real world. But Joy Mangano (a real-life and highly successful inventor/entrepreneur), the subject of Russell’s latest work JOY, doesn’t quite fall into that category. Her greatest shortcoming is her family, but to be fair, their appallingly bad advice and unconditional lack of support of and confidence in her (crossing into outright betrayal, at times) is what likely drove her to succeed. Joy (played with just the right levels of exasperation and charm by Jennifer Lawrence) is someone we might call “too good”—too forgiving, too ready to give those who would allow her to fall flat on her face a second or third chance, and it makes her absolutely frustrating and fascinating all at once.
Ironically, one of the most supportive people of her dreams and goals to better herself is her ex-husband Tony (Édgar Ramírez). More than once, they make the observation that they are far better at being friends than were at being husband and wife, which is handy when Joy needs him to help out with their three young kids while she deals with the mess that is her life. Joy shares a home with Tony (who lives in the basement), their kids, her mother Carrie (who almost never leaves her bed and is addicted to soap operas, played by an almost unrecognizable Virginia Madsen), and loving grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd), so it’s no surprise that their Long Island home feels claustrophobic. Things are not made better when her freeloading father Rudy (Lawrence’s SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK and AMERICAN HUSTLE co-star Robert De Niro) shows up and must share the basement with Tony. Bonus points: the two men hate each other.
In flashbacks, we learn that, since Joy was a child, she was always coming up with inventions, one of which was a fluorescent flea collar that also kept dogs from choking on their leash. She swears that Hartz stole the idea, and her interest in inventing waned. But one night when she is mopping up a broken glass, she cuts her hands trying to wring out the mop and comes up with the idea of a mop offering hand-free wringing that also is infinitely more absorbent and has a cotton-made head you can throw in the washing machine, making it the only mop anyone would ever have to buy. As difficult as it is to believe, JOY will make you care about the fate of this Miracle Mop and its creator more than just about any other character or inanimate object you’ll see in any movie this year.
The film tracks the slow and painful process of getting a prototype of the mop made, securing a patent, getting financing for the business, finding a small assembly plant to mass produce them affordably, and figuring out exactly how and where to market and sell them. None of these steps comes easy to Joy, and her family fights and contradicts her every step of the way, including her envious sister Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm), whose belief that she has better ideas than Joy makes her think it’s okay to sabotage Joy’s business. One of the most horrible creatures in the film is Rudy’s new girlfriend, played by Isabella Rossellini, a rich widow who puts in a the seed money for Joy’s business, but insists on hiring a lawyer to take care of her patent, who in turn screws them up and puts Joy is a position where she might lose everything.
There are more than a few moments where you truly wish Joy would abandon her family wholesale, take her kids and go hide out until these jackals disappear, but she’s not built that way and somehow has the strength to use their derision to fuel her drive and keep her eye on the prize. And apparently, the prize is QVC, which is where Joy found her early success, in the cable channel’s early days. As good as the first part of JOY is, the scene in which she enters the QVC studios, and gets her first crack at selling the Miracle Mop is the dramatic turning point in the film. She (and we) can see the prize, and the fact that it still seems so close but so out of reach will make your head spin.
She’s given a tour of the QVC studios by an executive for the company (played with just the right blend of soothing guru and sleazy corporate goon by another frequent Lawrence co-star, Bradley Cooper), and he makes big promises about exposure and sales. (Keep an eye out for a wonderful cameo by early QVC celebrity salesperson Joan Rivers, played by her daughter Melissa.) After the mop makes a botched first appearance on the channel (hosted by a “professional” host who never bothered to test the product first), Joy convinces QVC to allow her to host her own segment, and the resulting segment nearly brought me to tears when it was over, for so many reasons—the first of which is that it’s one of the few times where something goes right for Joy. It’s the emotional highlight of JOY, and I love when a film manages to surprise me so completely and unexpectedly.
Sadly for Joy, this victory is fleeting, and the remainder of the film involves more fighting on her part for what is right and what is hers, both against her family and outside forces that threaten the production and ownership of the Miracle Mop. Even in victory, she isn’t allowed complete peace or piece of mind. There are a few final moments in JOY that are set closer to the present day (most of the film is set ind the early 1990s), and it’s clear that the lessons she learned about being allies in business have isolated her and made her less trusting. At the same time, she’s protective of others who come to her with great ideas to make certain they have their patents and designs in order, so no one can steal from them.
Russell never allows any of his characters to have it easy in any of his works; let’s face it, they would be fairly dull films if he did. His screenplay (from a story idea credited to him and Oscar-nominated BRIDESMAIDS screenwriter Annie Mumolo) is said to be partly fiction, maybe more so than the typical biopic. But the one thing I’m convinced of is that Lawrence captures the everywoman quality that Mangano brought to a network whose on-screen faces were empty-headed celebrities, spokesmodels, and camera-ready hosts (sorry, Joan). Joy was also the type of person who might leave a particularly nasty family exchange, go fire off a couple rounds at a nearby shooting range to blow off some steam, and get right back to the task at hand. Welcome to America, folks.
Russell and Lawrence are a remarkable team who seem to bring out the best in each other, without ever getting overly sentimental or ridiculous (even the portrayals of Joy’s extended Italian-American family are mild). I’ve seen JOY described as a “comedy,” which may be a way of conveying that the folks using that word don’t think it’s possible that the subject could be at the center of anything but. But this film is both a family drama and a character study of people we rarely get to see on the big screen, and that might be its greatest accomplishment of all.