After Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, David O. Russell continues his productive cinematic partnership with Jennifer Lawrence in Joy, and their latest collaboration strays from convention and expectation. Russell’s take on the life of Joy Mangano is one of the most bizarre and unique films targeted at mainstream audiences this year. It is possibly these qualities that have resulted in the picture’s mixed reception, and while some of the criticism could be interpreted as valid, it can be argued that Joy is a misunderstood, undervalued, and overlooked entity.
Unlike Russell’s other recent films, Joy doesn’t follow a familiar formula (though some have pointed our Russell’s homages Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore). Silver Linings Playbook had the romantic comedy blueprint to follow and American Hustle was guided by a Scorsese gangster flick roadmap. Those films never were simply a romantic comedy or a Scorsese rip-off, because they were saturated in Russell’s own personality and vision. But Joy stands separate from his other his work because of the lack of model to shadow; Russell is able to let his creative imagination run even more wildly through the pages of the screenplay and the lens of the camera than he did in his previous two films.
Russell’s hyperactive signature is carved into every shot of Joy, each with its own assigned purpose it means to convey. He moves fast and expects the audience to keep up with his pace, changing the driving narrative force scene to scene. In the editing room, he conjures up a film form for Joy that’s extremely artful, even experimental, as he disrupts the chronology of events within a scene, piecing together some sequences in unconventional ways, most laudably used in the film’s conclusion which intertwines the present day with the future. Joy would be a vastly different film with any other person at the helm, because no other director could have imagined it in the extraordinary view that Russell does. (Who else could have directed the sequence of Joy’s marriage to Tony as swiftly or as emotionally as Russell does?)
Jennifer Lawrence stars as Joy and delivers a performance unlike either of the two she’s given in her previous movies with Russell. Lawrence dominates Joy with composure and subtlety. She portrays Joy dealing with the quandaries the character faces with an unsensational sense of reality. Even when the script allows Lawrence to tap into her intense melodramatic acting genes, which it does only rarely, Russell allots Lawrence the time to cook the emotion and lets it stew in her eyes before she erupts with stirring power. It’s her most mature work as an actress to date. The rest of the cast contribute to the film, forming a united ensemble, with Bradley Cooper’s quiet work, Isabella Rossellini’s fierce rendering, and Diane Ladd’s soulful portrayal being the standouts of the supporting cast.
Though Russell’s daring artistic branding of the project and Lawrence’s superb performance help mold Joy’s triumph, it’s the screenplay and its symbols, allegory and messages embedded within the narrative that, to me, are the most fascinating aspects of the film. Joy is the story of a girl as she grows into the family matriarch, a woman who wants to create and build things for herself, and Russell clarifies that mission statement by weaving a thorough amount of rich detail into the character development and plot.
The strangest creative choice in Russell’s Joy, one that probably caught many viewers by surprise, is the method of opening the film using a fictional soap opera, starring real soap opera veterans like Susan Lucci, Maurice Benard, and Laura Wright. Russell used a male protagonist to initiate the audience into the stories of Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, but with Joy’s opening, he departs from his earlier precedents. Soap operas have been historically stereotyped as “women’s entertainment” and cheap drama. In their prime, they were set up so that only women were able to watch them, during the daytime while husbands were at work and the children were at school. In a way, soap operas are a system of oppression in and of themselves. These shows have never been heralded as fine art; in fact, they are often denounced by critics and men who describe them as “feminine,” which is supposed to be an inherently negative and inferior quality in anything or anyone, according to the coded rules of patriarchy. Even today, an adjective like “soapy” is used to denigrate melodrama and ignore its artistic value – just read some reviews of Kerry Washington’s Scandal and Viola Davis’ How to Get Away with Murder.
Russell uses the soap opera to frame the first act of Joy in order to emphasize how women’s potential has been limited. Soap operas, like their assumed role in the domestic space, are a way of discounting women and their abilities as trivial. Joy’s mother Terry and father Rudy are an example of a traditional nuclear couple, positioning him at work in the public sphere and her inside the private sphere watching these shows. Soap operas literally become the stage for Joy’s worst nightmares depicted in the film, sequences that serve as impetus for Joy to feed her inspiration to create the Miracle Mop. Joy sees her mother’s life and internalizes it to a point where she dreams of attending the funeral for the younger version of herself, a version where her ideas and imagination were not smothered within the forced soap opera confines of her adult life.
The disadvantaged situation in which Joy feels trapped results from the patriarchal structure of our society, because her relationships as a woman to her father and her husband Tony are what limit her dreams and entrepreneurship. Rudy and Tony were given the freedom to pursue the business ventures and careers they wanted, while the responsibilities of the domestic space fell onto Joy by way of how the system is set up, which halts her plans and restrains her talents. Even though she was the valedictorian of her high school and had already invented items that never received a patent, she was not encouraged to pursue a future career. Instead, Joy was obligated to help out in her father’s business and take care of her mother after her parents’ divorce.
But what solidifies Joy’s position within the domestic space and further severs her from the option to pursue her career is her marriage to Tony. He gives her “a spring in her step” when they first meet, as Ladd’s narration as Joy’s grandmother Mimi recounts, but the temporary fantasy of their union ends up confining her even more than the situation with her parents did. They marry too young, too quickly, and eventually divorce (a common situation in which young women find themselves), all of which is communicated in a five-minute montage that comes and goes as rapidly as the failed marriage seals Joy’s fate for the next several years. She now has two kids as well as other family members for whom to provide, which eliminates the possibilities for Joy to explore herself as an entrepreneur. The act of breaking through to the other side of her aspirations occurs when the societally constructed system physically wounds Joy, as glass shards cut into her hands while cleaning up a wine spill. This inspires Joy’s idea for a self-ringing mop, the contraption that would change her life and professional path forever.
Guns have been used for decades spanning back to the Golden Age of Hollywood as symbols of men exhibiting their masculinity in film. Joy adds on to this narrative, questioning guns and by extension masculinity as sources of power. The result is one of the film’s most enticing feminist messages. The audience is introduced to guns in the opening scene of the film, within the fictional soap opera, where a character encourages the female protagonist, Clarinda, to take hold of a gun, suggesting that the gun is the answer to her problems and will supply her with strength. Clarinda doesn’t think she can handle the frightening, dangerous gun. Russell uses this mention of guns to critique the belief that women are unable to handle duty, control, and power as men do, and further enforces his point by having Clarinda recite the line, carrying on the theme of soap operas as a place of limitation for women.
The next appearance of guns in the film occurs when Joy is forced to take out a second mortgage on her home in order to produce more mops after her family and investor decline to further assist her financially. Joy retreats to the shooting range near her father’s place of business and fires a gun several times to release her tension and anger. Russell uses this placement of a gun to show the position Joy thinks she’s in: Joy uses the gun after deciding to mortgage her house believing it will make her powerful, believing it’s her pathway to success in business, but ironically this is a decision that leaves her in an even more vulnerable position in act three.
In the climax of the film, a Texas liaison to discuss a dubious Hong Kong royalty agreement, a sinister figure who has been embezzling money from Joy’s mops threatens her life when she approaches him in negotiations. Instead of carrying a gun or being intimidated by the Texan’s threat of violence, she uses her mind, research, and agile communication skills to outsmart his con job. Joy rejects that socially constructed view of power, and learns that faith in guns and blazing masculinity amounts to nothing in practice and that she doesn’t need them to be a successful person in business.
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The most substantial element in the screenplay that conveys Russell’s intentions behind his film is the allegory of Joy’s experience which outlines the process one must undergo in order to prosper in the capitalist system. Conception of an idea, the marketing the item, and distributing the product are the stages of business that are reflected in Joy’s three-act narrative structure. The first act entails Joy’s awakening from her oppressed creativity and dreams, then devising the mop and manufacturing it. In act two, Joy fruitfully uses the QVC station on television to promote her mop and attract consumers to the materialized product. The third act is the most profound volume of Joy’s narrative: It’s not just simply persuading people to buy the commodity, but it’s learning to outsmart the competition and thwart fraud, and discovering ways to shed her weakness (which Russell illustrates when Joy cuts her hair as literal view of the metaphor) and discard her naivete in order to navigate trade deals.
The film is thus about Joy’s personal story of ascending through these three steps of the system and acquiring the knowledge she needs to use capitalism to her advantage. This allows her to build the life she wants for herself and her family. Joy’s character arc crystallizes in the final scene of the film, which primarily takes place with Joy walking through the streets of Texas reflecting on how her actions have led to prosperity, how this moment will impact the rest of the life, and how the experience she has gleaned will allow her to attain what she seeks in the future. The point is not how she achieves the success found at QVC; instead it’s about how she will manage and maintain it. She becomes a woman versed in the art of commerce.
This is not to say Joy is faultless, because there are a few details that do not flow effortlessly with the rest of the picture. For instance, Virginia Madsen as Joy’s mother often feels like a tacked-on distraction whenever her character is not serving to form the soap opera frame of the narrative. There are occasionally flickers of silliness in otherwise serious moments, and a few sequences are not entirely successful at merging the dialogue with the blocking of a scene, such as when Cooper’s character Neil Walker initially engages with Joy in the QVC conference room. But these minimal rough patches are not detrimental to Joy’s greater impact as an allegory of the capitalist system and a captivating feminist character study. A crafty crowd-pleaser that relishes writer-director Russell making the most of his visionary style and Lawrence’s expanding talent, Joy is one of the best films of the year.