An exuberant but sometimes overstuffed examination of family dysfunction, co-dependency, nearly-thwarted ambition and motherly resolve, David O. Russell’s “Joy” is another emotionally operatic melodrama in the vein of his recent trilogy of blue-collar family malfunction pictures (“The Fighter,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle“). But “Joy” distinguishes itself ever so slightly from those films by taking on dreamy fairy tale qualities and colors. Russell attempts to channel a lot of tones simultaneously — escape, soap opera family dynamics, a melancholy frosty ache, and brassy courage in the face of adversity — but as usual, Jennifer Lawrence and the dynamic cast anchors and expresses the hopped-up vision of the director’s big heart.
A decade-spanning dramedy that’s often wildly goofy and deeply heartfelt, “Joy” centers on Joy Mangano (Lawrence) and her difficult ascension as the matriarch of a neurotic and emotionally crippled family. Her tribe features all kinds of hysterical characters living under one roof: a mother who watches TV all day (Virginia Madsen); her bitter half-sister Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm); an uncharitable and critical father divorced from her mother and who lives in her basement (Robert De Niro); ex-husband Tony (Édgar Ramírez) who shares the same space; and her loving grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd), her one source of love and encouragement. Juggling three kids and struggling to make ends meet, the taken-for-granted Joy bears the burden of her emotionally abusive and self-centered family while acting as the undervalued glue that holds it together. Bradley Cooper plays a shopping channel network executive and eventual ally who reluctantly takes a chance on Joy, and he’s like a late act cherry on top of this tremendous supporting cast.
Thematically, “Joy” is about rediscovering yourself. Joy must reclaim the imaginative spirit she demonstrated as a child but which has been buried by loss-of-innocence pains (her parent’s divorce) and the years of put-downs and emotional betrayals she’s had to endure. While navigating the treachery of her various exasperating family members, Joy’s instinctive ingenuity is revitalized with the idea of a miracle mop that she eventually grows into a thriving business.
Occasionally, Joy’s clan can feel a little too cartoonishly fault-finding and evil, but there’s also a truthfulness to their selfishness that comes through the fantastic performances. You expect De Niro to be great, and Isabella Rossellini plays one of her most coldly mean-spirited roles as Joy’s father’s girlfriend and her manipulative financier. But the entire cast shines: Rohm gives her best performance to date as Joy’s envious, overlooked sister, Ladd and Madsen are excellent, and Joy’s daughter played by Aundrea Gadsby is phenomenal.
Russell takes his penchant for hysterical melodrama to its logical conclusion by incorporating soap opera theatricality to the film. Donna Mills, Susan Lucci and other soap stars appear briefly in dream sequences meant to riff on the daytime TV that Joy’s mom obsessively watches all day long in bed. These are risky experiments which invest the film with an enchanting flavor that seems new to Russell.
It often seems as if Russell cannot contain his excitement, passion, or focus — he can communicate five emotions at once. But as often as the rush of mood can be unwieldy and make for an overwhelming steamrolling effect in this film, the whirling dervish quality can be intoxicating. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren (who also shot “American Hustle”) almost pirouettes with the camera and the actors, yet always stops a given scene from going off the rails.
Music also plays a major role in “Joy,” both from a score perspective — via the orchestral work of David Campbell (Beck’s arranger father) and the guitar drones of West Dylan Thordson — and from the vibrant soundtrack that practically drives the film. Songs from Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra cut back the more wondrous moments of the film, while the Rolling Stones, Cream, Neil Young, and more traditional ‘60s and ‘70s rock contributes a swagger and verve underscoring Joy’s belated confidence.
With a story by Annie Mumolo (“Bridesmaids“) and Russell, and a screenplay solely credited to the filmmaker, “Joy” is not without problems, including a penchant for the resourceful protagonist to suddenly transform into a badass superheroine after each calamity. But what it lacks in narrative strength, it makes up for with heart, sincerity and deeply-felt passion. And Lawrence is a huge ballast to the picture, delivering yet another winning performance as the multilayered mother, caregiver, provider, enabler, inventor and survivor who is nearly disabused of dreams by her relentlessly opprobrious family, but always clings to her sense of childlike wonder.
Perhaps the drama’s biggest contradiction is that it does not reinvent Russell’s formula, but it seems to be wrestling with itself to try on some new hues. “Joy” is made up of three parts: a blue-period; the director’s attempt at minor-key reflection via the dreamy magical quality expressed in the film’s Christmas-y tenor; and Russell’s now familiar cinematic chutzpah. It can make for some occasionally chaotic and overwrought moviemaking, but the film’s enlivening feeling often trumps any wonky grammar. For better or worse, Russell isn’t about the details; rather, it’s the symphonic arc of emotion that he hopes to sweep you up in. So “Joy” is successful. Playing like a slightly more reflective B-side to the director’s greatest hits, his style in this film isn’t for the more cerebral audiences. But for the viewer who relates to family dysfunction, its maddening contradictions and its mercurial tenor, “Joy” can be painfully funny, engaging and full of relatable heartache. Bold and vibrantly told in ways that always cut close to the heart of human vulnerability, “Joy” often plays out like a sloppy kiss, but the ardor of its caress is easy to embrace. [B]