Here’s a once intriguing, often frustrating and occasionally enchanting offering from award season’s favourite director, David O. Russell. Joy claims to be ‘inspired by the stories of many women’, but is effectively a loose biographical drama of self-made millionaire Joy Mangano, who built her Miracle Mop design into a business empire. The story begins long before this success, however, and the film sees our aspiring inventor (Jennifer Lawrence) trapped in a broken home, surrounded by friends and family pushing her in different directions before deciding she’s had enough, and makes strident efforts to pursue her career.
Initially, one imagines Joy as a dark lesson that emotional torment is perhaps necessary for the birth of greatness, but what we’re dealt is yet another inward-facing study of the broken American dream, something Russell played with extensively in The Fighter. The trump card in this case is Lawrence, adding another majestic, self-contained role to her roster, never more effervescent as a movie star than when our long-tortured heroine takes a snowbound strut to victory in killer shades.
Russell’s love for dysfunctional families manifests once again, featuring prominent turns from De Niro as intrusive father Rudy and Elisabeth Röhm channelling a young Susan Sarandon to inhabit Joy’s power-hungry half-sister, Peggy. These significant component parts are well-formed, but don’t amount to a pleasing whole: for all the star power in the room, everyone (even Lawrence herself once or twice) becomes background noise when Isabella Rossellini appears in her supporting role as the thunderous matriarch whose power and influence Joy can only dream of.
The very beginning of the film is a flimsy soap opera to which Joy’s mother is perpetually glued, and the associated ripe dialogue is reflected by our main players in the disjointed opening. From this starting pistol, the visuals too tread an odd line between social realism and fairy tale melodrama, often getting into a pickle with a general misalignment of floating, dream-like camerawork and a choked faux-gold 80s aesthetic.
Never is this disconnect more apparent than when Joy first delivers the famous mop pitch on QVC for the first time: timidity is framed as tumult, with head-spinning cinematography drowning out Lawrence’s carefully crafted subtlety and made overkill by the response of Bradley Cooper’s star-struck TV producer Neil Walker.
This disparity continues to leak from the screen and into the auditorium: Russell’s latest has certainly seemed to split critics and evidently cinemagoers, too. Amongst the audience of ten in my screening, one fell into a doze and two more left before the halfway mark, tutting to each other. While I can’t understand such a strong reaction, Joy's journey is often unquestionably laboured. It’s a film that is served best in moments of urgency, not when Hollywood’s finest sit across from one another discussing the finer points of patent law.