Joy (****) – Norma Rae can stuff it

Joy-New-Poster

Joy – 2015

Written and Directed by David O. Russell
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Edgar Ramirez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Bradley Cooper, Elisabeth Röhm, Dascha Polanco

If there is a special ability portrayed by the actors and director of Joy, it’s that none of this feels that much like a movie. This half-fiction portrayal of the life of the creator of the Miracle Mop has way more truth in it than one would expect for something that is laced with this much drama. In contrast to the good but mostly method acting of the leads in The Big Short, when watching mega-star Jennifer Lawrence inhabit the life of the titular working class hero, it is remarkable how much we don’t realize we are watching Jennifer Lawrence.

Much of the first act shows Joy in a miserable state. She is a single mother of two kids with a job that is going nowhere. Her divorced father (De Niro) is handed back to her by his current girlfriend. He moves in downstairs…where her own ex-husband (Ramirez) lives. Her mother (Madsen) inhabits one room, her grandmother (Ladd) another. She does most of the cleaning and repair work.

One day while mopping up a mess on his father’s new girlfriend (Rossellini) Trudy’s boat, she cuts her hand on some glass. The effect is an awakening of a long-dormant mechanism in her psyche that provides solutions to problems in the form of inventions. Following her instinct for the first time in years, she goes for it. Through much negotiating with her father and his girlfriend and some fantastic support from her husband and her best friend (Polanco).

This is not without bumps in the road, some of them real, some added for extra dramatic effect. Either way, the journey from her miserable existence to salvation through QVC is one worthy of the document. Russell, Lawrence and Cooper, as QVC executive Neil Walker, do a fantastic job giving voice to the millions of people who spend each day watching their television for community and ideas to make their lives better in some small way.

There is a moment, after Joy arrives to the QVC studios, waits all day and gets an interview where it seems as though it’s another dead end. Walker stops her presentation, takes her on a tour, and explains the importance of his work and how much it matters. Looking in Joy’s eyes, we see that she is buying what Walker is selling. In this moment, we buy in as well.

Don’t ever think that the world owes you anything, because it doesn’t. The world doesn’t owe you a thing.

The performances, for the most part, are sublime. The only time the film goes off course is with the fictional character Peggy (Röhm) and her effect on her father. There is a lot of talk about ‘having ideas too.’ It is a creative miss having De Niro switch back and forth between helpful and a kook that sides with odd suggestions better suited to a Wes Anderson film.  They should have replaced the weak and contrived last act with a bolstered middle act with more depth to the colorful and original supporting characters, we would have perfection.

This is Lawrence’s film though. Understandably, they threw the corn fed dramatic twists in there to give her something more to stand up against, just like Norma Rae. Norma Rae be damned. I always preferred Places in the Heart. Lawrence has enough material here navigating through Madsen, Ladd, De Niro and Rossellini to carry the day. Watching her move back and forth between various problems presented, solutions created, help offered and received is enough to fill one’s heart with the pleasure of knowing people like Joy exist.  Joy will push through, even if the world doesn’t owe her a thing.

(**** out of *****)

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