The oft-cited “American Dream” is to have a better life than your parents did, to make something of yourself to further the success of the family name, or at least to live in relative comfort through hard work and perseverance. Stories about chasing that ideal have been made into movies for as long as movies have existed, but few depict it as a grueling endurance test with seemingly everyone in the world trying to tear down the main character so much as Joy. In David O. Russell’s new film, a woman must make her own way in the world in spite of every single person she meets basically holding her back.
I’m not the biggest David O. Russell fan, but it can be said that he has a knack for depicting horrible, cancerous family units that somehow stay together, however dysfunctionally. Beginning with 2010’s The Fighter and continuing on with 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook and 2013’s American Hustle, he has shown us a very distinct subset of the American Dream. Based on the true story of Joy Mangano, a single mother who invented the Miracle Mop and eventually held dozens of other patents, becoming a mogul in her own right, Joy has, amazingly, the most acidic and least supportive family perhaps ever depicted as not being physically abusive or outwardly evil.
The story is told like a fairy tale, narrated by Joy’s grandmother (Diane Ladd), and we’re led to believe Joy has been destined for greatness ever since she was a child. But sadly, by adulthood, she’s stuck in a rut. Jennifer Lawrence plays Joy, who begins the film as a mother of two whose house is not only occupied by her children and grandmother, but also by her shut-in, soap opera-obsessed mother (Virginia Madsen), layabout ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez), and eventually her father (Robert De Niro) who runs an auto body business. At every turn, Joy’s older half-sister (Elisabeth Rohm) is trying to undermine her, as is really everyone, even though she supports all of them.
At a certain point, Joy hits upon an idea for an invention: a mop that is super absorbent, self-wringing, and easily washable. She asks her father’s rich new girlfriend (Isabella Rossellini) for money to make a prototype and attempts to sell it everywhere, eventually getting an audience with the head of upstart cable shopping network, QVC. This executive (Bradley Cooper) sees potential in the product, but still requires Joy do most of the leg work to get the product ready for selling. This leads to an ever-increasing barrage of people trying to cut her down, including most of her own family, manufacturers, patent lawyers, and seedy businessmen from Dallas. In short, practically no one has her back, and she has to do it all herself.
Now, generally, a story like this is wonderful. It’s not unlike those old Frank Capra movies that were an onslaught of depressing circumstances and the little guy getting kicked while they’re down untol the last five minutes when they get to make an impassioned speech or the townsfolk rally around them or they decide not to kill themselves (which is actually very common in Capra movies). The trouble is, it all feels so weirdly uneven here, with strange dream sequences all based around TV soap operas, and the fairy tale narrator only coming in occasionally after being absent for large stretches of time. There’s an overall feeling that what we’re watching isn’t as interesting as Russell seems to insist it is.
That isn’t to say that the performances aren’t fine, with Lawrence again proving she’s a strong screen presence who can carry any kind of story, and there are certainly moments when we feel the triumph and (more often) the defeats of Joy in her quest to make something of herself. But overall if feels like a high-concept approach to a very regular-concept story and doesn’t land a lot of the time.