After the successes of Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, any combination of writer/director David O. Russell, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper is cause for excitement, and that’s exactly what we felt about Joy. You’ll walk into the theater, rightfully eager for a sharp script, compelling drama, a few surprises, and some laughs.
And you’ll leave Joy having experienced just about none of the above.
Lawrence stars as the titular Joy, a single mother whose circumstances have inhibited her personal growth. She lives with her mother Terry (Virginia Madsen) and grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd), and as the film begins, her father Rudy (De Niro) breaks up with his girlfriend and decides to move into Joy’s basement, which happens to be where Joy’s ex-husband Tony (Édgar Ramírez) currently resides. Only Joy’s best friend from childhood, Jackie (Dascha Polanco), is a reliable confidante in her otherwise chaotic daily life. Flashbacks tell us Joy has always been smart and creative, but she’s never had a chance to make any of her dreams or ideas come to fruition.
Joy invents the “Miracle Mop,” a self-wringing and washable contraption that’s unlike any mop ever slung around a kitchen floor. She goes to her father’s new girlfriend, Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), for financial help, but is unprepared for the hardships she will face — concept design, production, intellectual property, etc. Several times, she’s on the cusp of losing it all, and her family has a terrible way of showing support. To his credit, Russell captures the plight of the small business owner well, including the pitfalls of startup headaches and getting bad advice — and following it.
The story is set in the 1980s, so when Bradley Cooper pops up as Neil, a QVC executive responsible for launching the network, you get a good idea how it’ll play out. There are some twists along the way, and you’ll root for Joy, but the frustration of her dismissive family — all of whom are one-dimensional personality types rather than full-fledged individuals — make it hard to invest in the story. You get the sense Joy can’t win with them, and worse, can’t get them out of her way.
Fantasy elements, such as Joy envisioning herself in a soap opera, and surreal moments, such as Joy’s mother suddenly in love with the Haitian plumber Toussaint (Jimmy Jean-Louis), have a Wes Andersonish quirkiness about them, but feel out of place — they come across as weird for the sake of being weird, which adds nothing of value.
Per usual with Russell, the soundtrack is rife with pop hits and the writing is clever even if it doesn’t convincingly carry the narrative. Most of the actors are limited in what they can do with their characters, but De Niro steals more than one scene with great comic timing. It wouldn’t make sense to have more of this because its sole intention is comic relief, but thank goodness the scenes come when they do.
Still, where’s the flair? The panache? You keep waiting for Joy to ooze with style and tempo, to win us over with its zaniness, to tell a thoroughly engaging, pressing drama. But it never happens. What we get instead are a few inspired performances (particularly from De Niro) and a half-baked story that lies flat on screen. Considering the wonderfully talented filmmakers, this is a disappointment.