"It's my fault, I gave her the confidence to think she was more than just an unemployed housewife."
So the first new film I see in 2016 is another directorial effort from David O Russell (‘Three Kings’, ‘The Fighter’ and ‘Silver Linings Playbook’) that stars Jenifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and the one and only Robert De Niro. I think I can safely say that there are worse ways to start a year.
The true (sort of) story of how Joy Mangano (Lawrence) went from humble origins to become a giant in the business of household appliance manufacturing, overcoming obstacles and the demeaning attitude her father (De Niro) holds towards her as well as the rest of the business world.
Not what you would call an obvious choice for a biopic, as the story of Joy Mangano does not contain a tragic setting, uncovered trauma or massive controversy. Look at some recent biopics and you can’t help but notice the decidedly tragic pattern. But then again where did the rulebook say that biopics had to be traumatic, why can’t they just be inspirational stories of people overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds made all the more relevant as they are true?
Such a biopic is not unheard of, but quite often they have to fictionalise various elements to either emphasise their victory or struggle. Remember though, the inspirational achievement of ‘Joy’ is a woman inventing a mop. No disrespect to Mangano herself (in case she reads this I guess, doubtful) but what O Russell is essential doing here is asking us to become emotionally invested in a mop, its conception and distribution. It doesn’t quite work as a concept, in fact it is quite ridiculous and while it may appear to be deliberate as a method to emphasise the comedic aspects of the film, but if it is it is a technique that is never fully explored nor developed. Instead it finds a rather cumbersome middle ground between a comedy and a melodrama that never quite feels natural.
The same cannot be said for Jennifer Lawrence as her performance never falls flat, never strays and never fails to amaze. In many ways I feel as if she is the ideal audience for this film, with the passion and emotional investment she puts into her own invention. During a searing monologue in which Joy tries to sell her mops on QVC she speaks with such force and conviction that had someone been selling them outside, I would have bought one in an instant. As well as this though Joy becomes an immensely likable yet emotionally challenged character, the fact that she has been underestimated her entire life rapidly becomes her advantage and you feel for her when she succeeds. This downtrodden upbringing in which her father and family has questioned every decision she has made, from her marriage to her business, gives her a sense of vulnerability but as she emerges into a strong and independent character Lawrence is able to unleash this outburst of pent up authority and power, as if every word only makes her doubters more incorrect.
Having worked with her three times now O Russell seems to have designed this entire film around Lawrence, realising that it lives and dies on her performance and using it to showcase all of her acting talents. That can also be where it stumbles as every other character feels relatively underdeveloped and unimportant, merely accessories to Joy’s own emotional arc. This would be fine if there were just a few supporting characters but there are in fact a lot of accessories, from her family, business associates and rivals as well as a few additional faces from her father’s rich girlfriend that helps fund Joy’s enterprise to the sales executive who gives her a moment in the spotlight. Many of these characters feel unnecessary even if the actors in question such as De Nrio and Cooper are good in their roles, as if you could have cut them, replaced their role with a different character to expand their story and limit the number of deviations from the plot.
That would be extremely useful as ‘Joy’ deviates a lot, skewing from the central plot to further Lawrence’s performance rather than tell a well-structured story. The end result is that beyond Joy herself, very little else ultimately matters in the film, with virtually no emotional investment, development or progression.
While ‘Joy’ may be a pure showcase for Lawrence’s performance, that is still a pretty good excuse to make a showcase.