There’s something truly fantastic about the opening scene of Joy. It’s a black and white television soap opera starring none other than All My Children’s Susan Lucci. Stiff acting, Bob Mackie-type gowns and Dynasty hair, elaborate names like Bartholomew, Clarinda and Danica pepper this sequence and although we don’t know what it means in context it sets us up for the most non-traditional David O. Russell film since I Heart Huckabees and his best film since Three Kings.
From there we enter the story through the voice of the luminous Diane Ladd, who plays Joy’s grandmother, Mimi. A story of “daring women, one in particular,” she says. We see Joy as a young girl creating an elaborate diorama of a world she wants to live in (“I don’t need a prince”) and we know right off the bat that the story we’re going to see is less a biopic than a fable, a fairy tale.
Loosely based on the rise of Miracle Mop inventor and mogul Joy Mangano, Joy (a stunningly good Jennifer Lawrence) traverses the trials of a single mother of two living in a house with her soap-opera addicted mother Terry (a funny and anxiety-ridden Virginia Madsen), her ex-husband Tony, who lives in her basement (a wonderful Édgar Ramírez), and her father Rudy (funny but decidedly low-key Robert De Niro), who moves in after being kicked out by his second wife. Her passive-aggressive nay-saying sister Peggy (a deliciously nasty Elizabeth Röhm) manages the auto body shop owned by their father. The screwball comedy nature of this setup harks back to Russell’s best film, Flirting with Disaster. After a trio of Oscar-friendly and decidedly more mainstream efforts, this is a welcome return to form. From a story by Annie Mumolo (Bridesmaids) and written by Russell, this is his first female-led and centered film and it’s a huge win.
Joy finds herself in steep debt, mortgaged to the hilt and with house repairs she can’t pay to fix. In one scene, too tired to continue, she rests at the end of her mother’s bed. Drifting off to sleep, she enters the world of the aforementioned soap opera that sets the stage for a spirit of classic, escapist Hollywood reminiscent of everything from Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels to strong women’s films of the time like Mildred Pierce.
After her father meets a wealthy Italian woman on a pre-internet era phone message dating service (“Hi, this is 9833…”) named Trudy (“Rudy…Trudy”) played with delicious fun by Isabella Rossellini, Joy finds herself on Trudy’s sailboat with her family. Trudy has forbid anyone to bring red wine, as she doesn’t want it to stain the teak. This, of course, sets up what will be Joy’s future. Red wine is spilled, glass is smashed and Joy tries to mop it up with a traditional mop on board. Ringing it out with her hands, she cuts her fingers and palms to shreds, leaving more blood than wine on the deck. The moment she gets home she begins working on an idea for a new mop. She had previously invented a break-away dog collar but never got a patent for it and the invention was attributed to someone else. Not this time, she thinks. With the help of her daughter, she creates a crude mock-up of her invention and goes to Trudy to ask her for an investment, with her father and sister present. She tries to explain the mop but they’re not getting it. Even with a handheld prototype they’re still not quite grasping it and Peggy steps in to poo on the idea and push her own agenda. Ultimately she gets approval from Trudy, but not without a price. Going into business with Trudy means using her lawyers, her manufacturing group. Joy relents, even as Tony warns from the sidelines.
Things get going and Joy starts an assembly plant in her father’s garage to build her mop and weasels her way into a meeting with QVC executive Neil Walker (played by Bradley Cooper). It’s here she marvels Cooper and his board and bam, he asks for 50,000 next week. As they walk through the halls and sets of QVC he explains that he thinks the future of television is “real people,” a prophecy that we all know comes true as the rise of reality TV invaded the airwaves soon after. Something else about this scene is, all I’ll say is get ready for a Joan Rivers cameo that is utterly unexpected but completely amazing.
After a disastrous debut of her invention by the network’s biggest seller (an arrogant guy who fumbles the mop’s usage on live television) Joy forces Walker’s hand with a superb speech on how David O. Selznick, an immigrant, married Oscar-winner Jennifer Jones to become a huge success. “You said that,” she throws back to him. Convinced, he lets Joy do her own selling (which no one on the network had done before) and after a quick bought of stage fright Joy takes off. It’s a brilliant sequence of suspense and payoff and you’ll probably never root for Lawrence more than in this moment.
With Joy, Jennifer Lawrence has found the best role of her career and her best performance to date. In fact, she’s perfect. Mature, assured and effortless. In a year of tremendous films starring and about women like Carol, Room and Brooklyn (but not to diminish them), Joy is a special creation; a woman who doesn’t let others around her make the decisions for her, she does it herself. She carves the path to her success and of achieving the ultimate American dream and does so with strength, conviction to a richly satisfying conclusion.