Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

"As wild as it seems at times, the film is deeply grounded in an emotional truth for each of the protagonists." | Photo: Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

David O. Russell creates big worlds. The actors he assembles and reassembles do their best work with him and Joy is no exception. Their performances explain a little bit about the most profound aspects of this world to us. "What does the O stand for?" Eve Kendall asks Roger O. Thornhill in North By Northwest. "Nothing," Cary Grant responds to Eva Marie Saint. In the center of Joy stands a void. David O. Russell points us to the vortex of desire in each of his creations, as he did in Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle.

Joy fights to get what her name promises and meaning is revealed in stages. A scene at a shooting range reinforces the opposite of what we might think of at first. Her desire, so difficult to achieve, is to invent and aide, not to destroy. Jennifer Lawrence wears a blouse with a big stain on the front. [It is the object petit a.] She owns that stain, it doesn't soil her as a person. Perfection is a myth and boring too.

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Joy is the story of Joy Mangano (Lawrence), the inventor of the Miracle Mop. Far from a biopic, O. Russell begins with a look at what Joy's mother Terry (Virginia Madsen) is concerned with most in life - her soap operas. Terry has chosen to engage with the world inside the little box in place of her own - a decision that affected her daughter's life immensely. With her mother holed up in her bedroom, little Joy (Isabella Crovetti-Cramp) takes on functions beyond her years.

The narrator is Joy's grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd), the only person to really believe in her. Mimi does not believe in obstacles and adds some magical perspective to her support. Diane Ladd told me that she discussed with her director that Mimi resembled Clarence, the angel in Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life. Like him, she is not omnipotent. No grandmother is, no matter how much love comes from her. It clearly helps, though, to encourage young Joy, who is good at making things and starts inventing as a child. When later she meets future husband Tony (Édgar Ramírez), he says "I'm going to be the next Tom Jones," and she says "I invented a dog collar." He gets her to sing Something Stupid with him and off to the wedding they go.

Although Joy jumps around in time, the main portion of the story takes place after they have a child and a divorce - with Tony still living in Joy's basement, practicing his lounge lizard act. With a reversal of gender, direction, and state of mind, the past remains in the home - the madwoman in the attic becomes the fairly sane ex-husband in the cellar, where he is soon joined by another ex-husband, namely Joy's father Rudy (Robert De Niro, unlike any other father you've seen). In an absurd twist on Capra's It Happened One Night and childhood pettiness, the two men get the underground room divided up with the help of a roll of toilet paper.

Rudy is a special kind of disaster. Jovial, self-serving, charming and unreliable. He plays it by ear in the worst way for his daughter who is trying to keep the household from collapsing. Like a five-year-old in a man's body he is perpetually at the brink of developing a moral kernel, always a step removed from real responsibility.

Rudy met someone new through a service that connects widows with [in his case false] widowers. Isabella Rossellini's Trudy knows how to take control, even when she has no clue what she is doing. While Terry is concerned with watching someone "kidnapped by a monk from Switzerland who was a count," real life with all its messy plumbing problems turns out to be a saving grace. Joy's half-sister Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm) has some envy issues to work out, while childhood friend Jackie (Dascha Polanco) gives unwavering and timely support.

With the longest, most absorbent, long-lasting, detachable cotton loops holding a family together, Joy hits close to home and the very unglamorous struggle to survive with some dignity intact in this society.

Bradley Cooper plays Neil Walker, the executive at the Home Shopping Network who gives Joy a chance or two, to bring her easy-wringing, machine-washable mop to the masses. His explanation of the American dream is that it's the place where an immigrant such as David O. Selznick could marry Hollywood royalty Jennifer Jones. Take note of the first names.

Virginia Madsen is given a slightly space-alien quality by the outrageous glasses and the patterned garments she wears as Terry. Michael Wilkinson's thoughtfully chosen costumes aid in making her a self-sentenced Rapunzel. Her room and the TV are her tower, because out in the streets there exist simply "Too Many Creeps," to quote from a poignant song.

Classic fairy tales should not be mistaken for soap operas or romance novels. Joy herself is close to the Rapunzel of the Grimms' tale, in which the heroine raises twins alone and has to make the prince see again before any happy resolution is possible. Nobody saves her there either. Joy, after cutting her own hair, eventually enters a hotel room that resembles that in Vertigo. She reinvents herself.

As wild as it seems at times, the film is deeply grounded in an emotional truth for each of the protagonists. Flaws and fancies swirl in a fascinating merry-go-round of trying to make something work in this world. We learn with them that cicadas stay in the ground for 17 years, information Joy gathers from her daughter's textbook. "It's such a random number," she exclaims and we can't help but think of her mother while she thinks, in another respect, of herself.

Joy is about the everyday small decisions that wear us down or build us up. People keep telling the heroine that they know better or taking decisions away from her, or coming with the worst advice. It doesn't matter why they do it, the film tells us, which makes it David O Russell's most subversive film to date.

Reviewed on: 22 Dec 2015
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Joy packshot
Story of the woman who invented the Miracle Mop.
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Director: David O Russell

Writer: David O Russell, based on the story by Annie Mumolo

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Elisabeth Röhm, Édgar Ramírez, Dascha Polanco, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Donna Mills, Isabella Rossellini, Drena De Niro, Jimmy Jean-Louis, Allie Marshall, Madison Wolfe, Erica McDermott

Year: 2015

Runtime: 123 minutes

Country: US


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