When people describe a narrative as a "Cinderella story," they usually mean it's about a character, probably a woman, who emerges from humble or troubled beginnings into a much happier life. David O. Russell's new Joy, about the life of entrepreneur Joy Mangano, meets that description. But Cinderella stories are also named after a fairy tale, and Joy, too, is a simplified, broad-strokes fable in which virtually everyone but the protagonist is exaggeratedly evil. "Hagiography" doesn't even begin to describe it. In Russell's script, Mangano is a paper saint surrounded by clawing imbeciles who undermine her at every turn. Unfortunately, most of them are related to her.
Jennifer Lawrence plays Mangano as a suffering young woman buoyed by big ideas. Through flashbacks, fulsomely narrated by Joy's grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd), we learn that young Joy was an inventive child, "one of those people who rejoiced in making things." But she was also selfless and obedient enough to abandon her hopes of college and stay home to help support her parents after a contentious divorce. As an adult, she lives in a disintegrating house with her two small children, her ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramírez), her mother Carrie (Virginia Madsen), and her grandmother / narrator Mimi. She's the only member of the household with a job, and the only one visibly aware of needs outside her own: Tony is caught up with his unprofitable singing career, Carrie rarely leaves her bed or her wretched soap operas, and Mimi is more or less invisible aside from her role as Joy's voiceover propagandist. Joy lives in a constant state of chaos and desperation, even before her father Rudy (Robert De Niro) demands to move in because he's breaking up with his girlfriend. He and Carrie quickly reignite their old arguments, and the furniture-smashing begins.
Joy has neither comedy nor nuance going for it
But deliverance is coming, in the form of Joy's own invention: the Miracle Mop. Everything you need to know about Joy can be found in the ridiculous scene in which the idea comes to her: During a freezing winter cruise on a boat owned by Rudy's rich new girlfriend Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), a glass of red wine shatters on the expensive teak deck. Down on her hands and knees scrubbing at the stain while Trudy, Rudy, and other family members blithely banter and ignore her efforts, Joy gashes her hands by — for some insane reason — hand-wringing a glass-shard-filled mop. In that moment, she's a cross between Cinderella cleaning up after her spoiled sisters, and every infomercial actor at their wit's end over the difficulty of simple household tasks. All that's missing is the exasperated appeal to the camera: "If only there was a product to fix this problem I've created through unrealistic behavior!"
But even once Joy invents her product, she still has to persuade Trudy to finance it, find a way to sell it, then keep her intrusive, controlling family from bungling the deal. The humiliations and setbacks pile up, and Trudy, Rudy, and especially Joy's monstrous half-sister Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm) are constantly on hand to dismiss any victories. By the end of the first act, Joy isn't a Cinderella story so much as "The Little Red Hen," with Joy doing all the work, and everyone standing by to gobble up anything she produces.
Russell's films — from 1994's Spanking The Monkey through 2012's Best Picture nominee Silver Linings Playbook — have often obsessed over toxic, intrusive family members, and the protagonists struggling to keep them at arm's length without cutting contact entirely. But the frustration that boxer Micky Ward feels about his drug-addicted trainer and half-brother Dicky in The Fighter is richly complicated by love and need. Mel Coplin's rage at his drug-dealing hippie biological parents in Flirting With Disaster is openly funny, and even Spanking The Monkey's dark relationship between Ray and his controlling mother has a bitterly humorous streak. Joy has neither comedy nor nuance going for it. Every character feels like a half-sketched first draft, awaiting development that never comes. No one really addresses, for instance, whether Carrie suffers from anxiety or laziness, whether she's mentally ill or fatally pampered. Her entire story arc consists of shrill shrieks at Joy, until she abruptly falls for a man and drifts out of the story. She isn't a person, she's a random obstacle, one of many one-dimensional backdrops used to throw Joy's patience and kindness into sharper relief.
The excruciatingly literal dialogue also feels like first draft material. "I feel like I'm in a prison," Joy sighs about her house. Later, she and her supportive best friend Jackie (Orange Is The New Black's Dascha Polanco) reminisce about "all the things we used to dream about," and Jackie introduces a flashback with "Remember the party where it all started?" Exposition inevitably comes either via Mimi's gushing voiceover, or "As everyone here already knows..." speeches. Joy's own emotional development consists of a recurring nightmare in which her childhood self scolds her for abandoning her ambitions.
But Joy's core problem is that it has nothing to communicate past a series of stages on the road from rags to riches. Even taking the film's agenda as fact, and accepting that Mangano's family members are a pack of venal, shameless, bile-spitting grotesques who speak only in broad clichés, Joy never thinks to question what Joy gets out of her relationships with them. This is the territory where Russell usually excels — digging into why people stay in painful relationships, and what happens when those relationships hit a breaking point. Joy isn't human enough to have a breaking point. She becomes a rich and successful company owner, but without ever questioning other people's right to smash her possessions, use her as a servant, or belittle her and blame their choices on her. Lawrence emotes despair, rage, depression, determination, and hope effectively throughout the film, but Joy never seems to be telling an emotional story, so much as it's stringing bits of mythmaking incident together to mechanically get its central figure from underdog status to a top-dog position.
Toward the middle of the film, Joy leaves her family to work on selling her mop via a new outlet: the budding QVC cable channel, presided over by an executive played by Bradley Cooper. It's the second reunion for Lawrence, Cooper, and De Niro; all three starred in Russell's Silver Linings Playbook, and De Niro joined Lawrence and Cooper in American Hustle for an uncredited cameo. But Cooper's appearance enlivens the film considerably for reasons that have nothing to do with the trio's history. Once Joy steps behind the scenes at QVC, she's suddenly in an entirely different and far more lively film. The editing speeds up, Danny Elfman's score becomes upbeat and antic, and the soap opera bathos is replaced with game show energy. Cooper's performance isn't any quieter or more layered than the others, but his full-charge-ahead intensity is aimed at testing Joy rather than shredding her confidence.
And once Joy has an antagonist she can stand up to, Lawrence stops playing her as a suffering dishrag, and brings out her usual, much more appealing focus and ferocity. Given the chance, she plays her budding entrepreneur as a one-woman fighting force, taking QVC by storm, infiltrating a factory that's stealing her design, and turning the tables on a bullying patent rep. Suddenly, she's a better-dressed Erin Brockovich, taking advantage of the way people underestimate her as she refuses to back down.
Russell never decided what kind of a film he wanted to make
There are hints of several different films mashed together in Russell's script. One is a Spanking The Monkey-style family drama about endurance and the many forms of abuse. Another is a sort of jazzy, playful heist à la American Hustle, about an outsider taking an unsuspecting industry by storm. A third is a Fighter-style success narrative about an up-and-comer learning to differentiate her victories from her family's victories. And a fourth is a comedy in the vein of Flirting With Disaster, that embraces a kind of satire Russell only hints at here. There's just never any sense that Russell ever decided which, if any, film he wanted to make. With a few more drafts, Joy could have found a specific, insightful identity. Instead, it's a bald and clumsy fairy tale about a good girl, some bad people, and a mop. Even the mop's story deserved better.