The Film: Joy
The Pitch: The Unsinkable Moppy Brown
Number of Nominations: One
Which Category: Best Actress
Will it Win? Several years after her breakout role in Winter’s Bone marked her as ingenue-du-jour, Jennifer Lawrence is still Hollywood’s It Girl. Having enjoyed both critical and box-office successes behind her (we’ll just forget about Serena and mark it as a blip on an otherwise perfect track record), she is one of only a handful of actresses who can ‘open’ a movie, as they say, and she had a hell of a 2015.
She put away her bow and arrow for good with the final chapter of The Hunger Games, and, no longer interested in being regarded as the simply being cute and adorable actress who’s forever stumbling on the red carpet, earned the respect of her peers when she penned an open letter to Hollywood demanding to be taken seriously- and paid accordingly. At 26, she is now the highest-paid actress in Hollywood and has an Oscar, as well as a brand-new BFF in Amy Schumer (with whom Lawrence is writing a screenplay).
An Oscar for Joy would be the perfect capper to a great year.
But it won’t happen. Or at least I don’t think so, and if it does, then Hollywood’s even more broken than I realised.
I am fairly certain that Lawrence is only nominated because she was the star of yet another David O. Russell dramedy released just before Christmas. Joy is their third collaboration, and the others (Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle) both brought Lawrence Oscar nominations (she won Best Actress for Silver Linings Playbook). She is Russell’s good luck charm (or vice-versa).
Bradley Cooper and Robert de Niro are also important to Russell. They both appear in Joy, a fast-paced serio-comic rags to riches tale about Joy Mangano, the inventor of the Miracle Mop.
It isn’t a bad film, but it isn’t a great one, either.
Some spoilers to follow
David O. Russell still has not developed a directing style he can call his own, although I am pleased to report he might be almost over his case of the Scorceses. There are still roving camera moves and sudden tracking shots in Joy and sudden cuts on the music soundtrack (like someone changing the radio dial), but Russell also seems content now and again to let his camera be still and simply record a scene.
His actors, too, seem to have calmed down (well, a little). There’s still a great deal of arguing in Russell’s movies, but in Joy it isn’t pitched quite so manically as it was in previous films. Russell does try to put a different spin on his standard tale of anarchic but lovable doofuses, with funny dream sequences involving Joy and characters from a soap opera, and a brief visit from a ghost. But make no mistake: this is another feel-good slice of petit bourgeois apple pie, filled with boisterous, larger-than-life characters with poor fashion sense, and it’s just about as conservative as a Frank Capra film.
The fictional soap – starring real soap actors – with its ludicrous stories, histrionics, and above all, an aspirational consumerist subtext, is the closest Russell gets to a meta-satirical comment on the film’s proceedings.
Lawrence dominates the film, and she’s very good (not Oscars good, just very good). But it has to be said this feels like an amalgam of characters she has played before. She’s in almost every scene as a put-upon* divorcee with few prospects, saddled with kids, living with her soap-opera addicted mother and her ex-husband (he lives in the basement). Then her dad moves in briefly. It’s all too much; she can’t cope; she has troubling dreams of her childhood and missed opportunities, and Presto! out of a stupor she rises with an idea, and the Miracle Mop is born.
In telling the true-life tale of Joy Mangano’s entrepreneurial triumph, Russell’s film mines familiar biopic territory. The initial struggle to get the design right. Trouble raising finances. Patent issues. Predictable failure in selling the product. And then her entry into selling merchandise on TV via the bizarre world of QVC (a place as lurid and as phony as the soap opera). After another stumble, success! And then more roadblocks. And then success again! And an empire is born.
The film ends with a coda that eerily resemble the opening scene of The Godfather, with Joy, beautifully poised and arranged behind a mahogany desk, waiting to receive supplicants eager to kiss her ring.
All of this happens in the 1980s, so there is big hair, horrible decor, shoulder pads and loud suits. But because it’s set among people who have missed out on the riches of Reaganomics, most of the pop songs on the soundtrack are from an earlier era – Nat King Cole, the Bee Gees, Cream, the Ronettes, and the Rolling Stones – as if the characters are stuck in the recession-filled 1970s.
Bradley Cooper plays the head of QVC like a Messianic preacher ready to spread the word about the Promotion of the Day, and the film can’t quite seem to decide if he should be admired or reviled. Cooper turns in a pretty decent supporting performance, trading on his customary mixture of earnestness, desperation and guile.
As Joy’s father, de Niro does his lovably gruff old man thing, and he gets some nice interplay with – of all people – Isabella Rosselini as his new squeeze. Virginia Madsen, meanwhile, is almost unrecognisable behind giant spectacles and swaddled in frumpy houscoats. Diane Ladd plays Joy’s grandmother, and Edgar Ramirez her loving ex-husband, who supports and helps her realise her dream.
And her dream is … very nice, and Joy does well, because she’s a smart cookie and plucky and [insert any patronising cliche to describe a woman in business].
Ultimately, though, her struggle for me wasn’t all that engaging. I appreciate what she accomplished, but the film’s stakes don’t really seem that high (mind you, the stakes in American Hustle were not exactly huge).
Verdict: Three Removable Mop-Heads out of Five
*Question: Why do we never describe men as ‘put-upon’? Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments section.