Chronicling the rise to prosperity of American everywoman-turned-inventor/entrepreneur Joy Mangano through the 1980s and 1990s, this eponymous biopic remains entertaining thanks to the solid ensemble performance by its large cast and some typically jazzy direction from Russell. The familiar story arc, including all the expected setbacks and an obligatory ending of sweet vindication, however, renders the whole endeavor somewhat conventional despite its every effort to distinguish itself from your run-of-the-mill awards contenders.
The film makes it clear that Joy (played by Lawrence) never had it easy. With a neglectful father (De Niro), his acrimonious late-life partner (Rossellini), a kind but less-than-able (ex-)husband (Ramírez) and other not necessarily supportive family members behind her, the young divorced mother of three carries the burden of an entire household on her shoulders. The underdog sentiment is magnified by the cheats, swindles, betrayals and general unfair treatment she suffers at the hands of others. Hence we learn to root for our heroine fairly early in the game. That she would persevere through all the adversities to win fame and fortune, though hardly surprising, certainly delivers that kick promised by every rags-to-riches narrative. That said, there’s a decidedly hollow air to such a one-sided portrayal, no matter how admirable and politically correct its message.
Stylistically, Russell dials the theatricality further up from American Hustle and applies the broad strokes and emotional flourish of the soaps that Joy’s TV-obsessed mother craves to the real-life drama. Greatly livening up the drab and biographical while saying something poignant about the essence of performance, the overtly artificial effect gives the movie its most playful/meaningful moments. Of the well-rounded cast, Lawrence is dependably fierce if not completely successful in bringing the maturity and overpowering composure of the protagonist. Rossellini does some delightful scene-chewing but her character doesn’t become fully three-dimensional either. Indeed, the biggest acting achievement here might lie in the collective, namely that messy yet inexplicably collegial impression one gets looking at this colourful bunch.
Lacking the winning star chemistry of Silver Linings Playbook and not as intricately structured as American Hustle, this third straight Russell-Lawrence-Cooper-De Niro-collaboration is altogether still an enjoyable watch, although it’s also the least ambitious or memorable.
Joy | Directed by: David O. Russell (USA 2015) with Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, Édgar Ramírez, Isabella Rossellini. Starts December 31