Despite its failings, Joy remains a charming watch if only to witness Jennifer Lawrence shine, says MacDara Conroy
It’s not hard to fathom why Winter’s Bone was Jennifer Lawrence’s breakout performance, as she commands practically every scene of that gritty ‘country noir’ drama as an assertive teenager, wise beyond her years and her upbringing, cutting through the bullshit of a backwards backwoods community to keep the family home after her father screws things up royally. Lawrence went on to capture hearts and minds the world over with further standout performances in prestige dramas and blockbuster franchises alike, and she deserves every bit of acclaim. Why Winter’s Bone writer/director Debra Granik didn’t enjoy the same career boost is disappointing, but telling of a system that, despite the aforementioned acclaim, saw fit to keep Lawrence in supporting or co-lead roles for years after.
I muse on that point because Lawrence’s latest, Joy, feels like an echo of those roots, not only because, as amazing and maddening as it is, it’s her first starring dramatic lead role in the five years since. She’s unquestionably the strong, capable type – a badass, in the parlance. It’s how she caught Hollywood’s attention in the first place, as the hardship-hardened Ree Dolly. And it what gets her cast in tough-on-the-inside roles from Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games movies to the life-changing catalyst in David O Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook and again in his ’70s crime caper American Hustle. It’s to Russell, and regular co-star Bradley Cooper, she returns as the titular Joy. And it’s a place that suits here here, front and centre, taking no shit from anyone.
Joy is Russell’s most successful film since The Fighter; a return for him, too, to the family dynamic that’s been a source of inspiration since his feature debut Spanking the Monkey, while also lighting on more recent themes, like the state of the American Dream, though mostly absent the slushy, naive hopefulness of Silver Linings and the cynicism of Hustle. But much of its success is down to Lawrence. Her Joy embodies both of those notions, at once tired and weary from watching her life’s dreams ebb away, or rather sapped away by the family from hell – including a neurotic, needy mother (Virginia Madsen), a flighty, hothead father (Robert De Niro), a jealous sister (Elisabeth Röhm) and an ex-husband hanging around like a bad smell (Édgar Ramírez) – but retaining a spark of mould-breaking spirit that’s set to change her life’s path.
A title card describes this biopic, a loose adaptation of the life of Joy Mangano (inventor of the Miracle Mop and numerous other home shopping money-spinners), as a story about extraordinary women. And that it is, to a fault. Lawrence is superb throughout, the fulcrum of every scene she’s in, and it’s a good job she can do that because the film around her is unfocused, the tone veering uncomfortably between affected farce, soap-opera melodrama and cold, austere realism (Linus Sandgren’s frostbitten cinematography helps convey the latter, when the film is at its best).
The elevator pitch – put-upon single mother navigates her crazy family to fulfil her ambitions as an inventor and businesswoman – lends itself all too easily to quirkiness, and Russell, a filmmaker known for his idiosyncracies, errs on the wrong side of the line with much of the supporting cast, most notably Isabella Rossellini portraying a Wes Anderson reject. Only Diane Ladd as Joy’s inspirational grandmother and Dascha Polanco as the supportive best friend, as clichéd as they are, rise above the quirks as Joy surmounts her familial obstructions to face the even bigger obstacles of the business world, including Bradley Cooper’s nurturing but ruthless TV shopping executive. The real film here, the one Russell seems to miss amid all its eccentricity, is the one about Joy cutting through the bullshit, just like Lawrence’s Ree years ago.
Russell might miss it, but it’s still there for everyone else to see. Despite its failings, Joy remains a charming watch if only to witness Jennifer Lawrence shine as one of the finest players in cinema today, a woman who deserves her spot in spite of the Hollywood machine’s self-reflexive misogyny. That she’ll be remembered long after this particular film is forgotten might well be the case, but that’s no good reason to ignore it, nor her for that matter.