It is clear from Joy that David O. Russell’s interests as a storyteller are limited. He likes telling stories about people who reinvent themselves and particularly people who have to overcome an overbearing family to do so. A feeling of familiarity will pervade over Joy for anyone that is familiar with Russell’s last three films. Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) is a woman who once had childhood dreams of becoming an inventor. Now, she has to hold down a dead end job at the airport to take care of her mother and children. Every time Joy shows a spark of potential or enthusiasm, it is suffocated by her overbearing family. Obviously, this is the kind of story suited to David O. Russell’s sensibilities. Unfortunately, what it does to set itself apart from his other films might be where most of my complaints come in.
The movie is the kind of sentimental ode to the American dream that you don’t really see any more. It is the sort of movie that equates the character’s success with how much freedom she has to run her company and how much money she is able to make doing so. The kind of movie where a gentle, old narrator takes us to the future to ensure us that Joy will move into that big house she always wanted and that her enemies will never succeed in ruining all that she has built. So worried is David O. Russell that the viewer might think that Joy does not get absolutely everything she has ever wanted that it just goes ahead and tells us that she does.
Joy is certainly a low point for David O. Russell since his comeback with The Fighter in 2010 but that does not mean it is without redeeming qualities. Front and center of these is Lawrence’s excellent performance as the titular character. Lawrence allows Joy to be believably vulnerable when dealing with her overbearing family but undeniably powerful when dealing with her business. She seamlessly weaves these strengths and weaknesses that are potentially counter to one another into a believable character. The scene where Joy has to demo her mop on TV encapsulates all of this perfectly. We see the shyness and vulnerability when the demo starts and the confident, capable woman come out and sell what she has made before the demo ends.
It is a pity that the movie surrounding Lawrence is treading such familiar ground for Russell and does nothing to make the revisitation worth while. Would I surprise you at this point if I told you that their was a scene in which everyone in the room is standing except Joy, even when they make decisions about her company? I can’t imagine so, especially if you saw Russell do the exact same scene in The Fighter. It is not just that Russell is repeating himself here, it is that he hasn’t found a worthwhile context that demands such a repetition. The whole movie just plays like a retread of The Fighter with less emphasis on the troubled sibling relationship.
“On the nose” is a phrase I keep coming back to with Joy. While reading a book to her daughter, Joy talks about cicadas. Cicadas hibernate for 17 years, which is exactly the amount of time that has passed since Joy has given up on wanting to build things and settled into a life of mundanity. When she casts the book aside and exclaims that the idea of hibernating that long is disturbing, I couldn’t help but feel the movie did not trust me to understand even this blunt metaphor on my own. If the metaphor is not obvious enough, a dream sequence in which a younger Joy (17 years younger to be exact) confronts her older counterpart spells it out for us even more. The movie is full of on the nose, surface level beats like that and fails, in my opinion, to be something of anymore depth. This is a story that has characters constantly telling Joy she can’t succeed and then celebrates with Joy when she succeeds and…that’s sort of it.
This review is coming out more negatively then I thought it would as I was walking out of the theater. At Joy’s best moments, I was right there with it. I was rooting for Joy to take control of her life and run her company the way that her family and her own self doubt kept her from doing. Unfortunately, those best moments are entirely the product of Lawrence’s charisma and honestly, they are few and far between. When it isn’t hitting those highs, it is a retread of Russell’s other films with a level of sentiment approaching maudlin. I like David O. Russell as a director but this film proves to me that he needs to take on a different kind of story to avoid falling into serious stagnation.