BY JERRY DEAN ROBERTS | February 18, 2016
There is a breaking point for most people, when the soul-crushing frenzy of everyday life brings them face to face with the inevitability that three things are possible for them: a nervous breakdown, a burst of brilliant inspiration, or the all-consuming threat that the rest of their life may become a den of mediocrity and submissiveness at which they will be forced to live a life in which little to nothing will be possible for them. I am convinced that Joy Mangano may have experienced all of these things at once.
The movie Joy is about her struggle. Mangano was a real-life single mother who one day, in a burst of inspiration, grabbed her daughter’s crayons and sketched out what would become The Miracle Mop, an invention so simple that you wonder why nobody ever thought of it in the first place. This is not a spoiler, this really happened, and it led her to create 100 other patented inventions that made her extremely wealthy. Yet, the journey getting there was so fraught with near-disaster that you wonder how she ever came through it without Xanax.
What draws our investment is Jennifer Lawrence who can play harried and stressed-out better than anyone else. She’s that rare actor whose whole hornet’s nest of emotional turmoil resides right there in the middle of her face – other actors have to look for it, she has it built-in.
The movie is not about a mop . . . well, okay, it is sort of about a mop. Director David O. Russell really wants us to understand the rise and fall and near-massive mountain of debt that threatens to crush Joy’s pursuit of the American dream. The movie takes place sometime in the mid-1980s – whenever it was that QVC was hot – and opens with Joy in an emotional place so stressful that I began to predict that somewhere in the movie she would end up in a padded room. She does not. One of the things about Joy that takes us off guard is her survival instinct. When the chips are down (and they are down quite a bit) her survival skills kick in and she finds a way to pull herself back from the brink. In narration, her grandmother tells us that she was once a person who liked to make things, but life and all its cruel twists and turns threw a monkey wrench into whatever plans she’d made and now she’s stuck in a place of professional and domestic oblivion, doomed to spend the rest of her life in a lingering stalemate of stressful problems.
She works a job at the airport where customers throw things at her, and then she comes home to a crumbling house that not only includes her two kids but also her mother Terry (Virginia Madsen) who watches soaps all day; her grandmother (Diane Ladd) who is always offering new age advice; her ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez) who lives in the basement and fancies himself the next Tom Jones; her half sister Peggy (Elisabeth Rohm) who is a ball of resentment; And new to the house, her grandfather Rudy (Robert de Niro), a ladies’ man who has moved into the house because he was suddenly asked to remove himself from his place of residence – that request came from his wife.
These are not the most supportive people in the world. They’d drive anybody to drink. They are like a football team who gets excited when the team does well, but bails when the team is down. Russell always gives his characters just one more dimension then they probably require and the wonderful cast of actors here are all amazing, even if we can’t stand them most of the time. The lone voice of reason in this pack of unsupportive wolves is Joy’s best friend Jackie (Dasca Polanco from ‘Orange is the New Black’) always with a twisted smile; she is the one person who remains in Joy’s corner, and gives her great support when she needs it. Midway through the film, she makes a crucial decision that likely saves Joy’s dream from turning into a nightmare.
But first, the inspiration. At wit’s end, an accident forces Joy to see the light. She breaks a glass of wine and, while cleaning it with a mop, she cuts her hands and gets a bright idea – a wringing mop that you never have to touch except when you remove the head to throw it in the washing machine. Immediately she grabs her daughter’s crayons and designs the mop of the future. We then follow her journey as she attempts to patent and sell a mop that nobody seems interested in while always standing in the looming shadow of massive debt should the invention come to nothing. She borrows money from Rudy’s new girlfriend Trudy (Isabella Rossellini) and even mortgages the house twice to pay expenses on her new idea.
Just like Steve Jobs selling his crazy new home computer-thingy, Joy has to wade through a field of ‘no thank-you’s to get anyone’s attention. She gets a lucky break from Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), the executive producer of QVC who takes a chance by putting her on a network that prides itself on celebrity pitchmen. After the celebrity that Neil hires to hawk the mop bungles the job, Joy insists that she should sell it herself. So, there she is, right there on the set with Joan Rivers (played all too briefly by daughter Melissa) hawking her new invention.
That’s the beauty of this movie. While Joy’s aspirations are always inches away from crumbling to dust, she always has an ace in the hole. Everyone around her thinks that her idea is idiotic and those hired to manufacture the mop are trying to bilk her out of hard-earned profits. She nearly gets done in so many times that the movie should have been called ‘How to Get Screwed in Business Without Even Trying’.
The magic of the movie comes from Jennifer Lawrence. This is her third collaboration with David O. Russell after Silver Linings Playbook (which got her the Oscar) and American Hustle. He understands how to use her. Lawrence is best in moments of stillness, when her face tells us everything we need to know. When she’s at her wit’s end, we believe that she is doomed to failure. When she is collected and skillful, we believe that she will succeed. We believe her character because she believes the character. When Joy goes on QVC to sell her mop, there is a moment of stage fright when she freezes, leading to a minute of dead air. It’s a heart-stopping moment because we know what is at stake. Lawrence makes us believe Joy’s pain and frustration and fear of failure. But she’s a survivor, an inspiring one. She reminds us of the kinds of feminist roles that Jane Fonda and Meryl Streep played once upon a time, only instead of dealing with abused vets or nuclear contamination, this is one deals with self-reliance in the face of overwhelming odds. The fact that she’s dealing with the American dream brings her story closer to the bone.
Joy is not a perfect movie however, though Jennifer Lawrence is perfect in it. It has structural problems. Ideas and plot-points are brought up and then dropped without resolution. There’s a wonderful narration by Diane Ladd that comes at the beginning but is absent for so long that we forget about it. Plus, some of the motivations of the supporting characters are brought up and then abandoned. The movie opens with a mock parody of a soap opera that doesn’t appear to have a purpose. Plus I don’t think Joy’s last name is ever even mentioned nor is the actual year that this takes place. Yet, once the actual story gets underway, none of those things really matter because the movie is so entertaining.
This is David O. Russell’s least impressive piece of work cinematically, yet the movie is extremely entertaining because you wrapped up in the story and in Jennifer Lawrence’s performance that you’re willing to overlook the film’s gaping flaws. This is the story of a woman who has a simple dream of selling a revolutionary mop and always edges very close to failure on a massive scale. You want Joy to succeed despite the odds, and because of Jennifer Lawrence’s performance we get caught up in the story even though we know the outcome. That takes talent.