Monday, January 18, 2016


JOY                 B-                   
USA  (124 mi)  2015  d:  David O. Russell                Official site

Another oddball piece for David O. Russell, among his more idiosyncratic works that seem to relish their own absurd dysfunction, leading the audience through a circuitous path that includes weird family meltdowns and abysmal financial failure, where all hopes and dreams are shattered and the audience is forced to endure a heroine that is literally wiped off the mat, forced to admit her abject failure before, by some miracle, the situation changes, leading to a fairy tale ending that bears little resemblance to everything that came before, perhaps suggesting there is a tenuous line between success and failure.  Perhaps most improbable of all, and likely undetected by most viewers following the sheer lunacy in which the way the story is told, is that the film is actually a quirky biopic based on a real-life person, Joy Mangano, one of the producers of the film and the inventor of the Miracle Mop, her first product, but also the inventor of over 100 patents, including Huggable Hangers, the best-selling product in the history of the Home Shopping Network.  After starting her career at QVC (Quality, Value, Convenience), an international shopping network, by selling an astounding 18,000 mops in just 20 minutes, she founded her own company, Ingenious Designs LLC, eventually becoming the face of the Home Shopping Network, where she remains one of their most successful sellers, with annual sales topping $150 million.  As of 2015, her net worth is around $50 million according to Joy Mangano Net Worth | Celebrity Net Worth, yet none of this is known to audiences ahead of time, instead there is a simple opening dedication, “Inspired by the true stories of daring women.  One in particular.”  Most may be unfamiliar with Joy Mangano, but will only know about her on the strength of Jennifer Lawrence’s performance, where for most of the film she’s a struggling, unemployed housewife just trying to keep her beleaguered family together, as it appears to have ample opportunities to implode upon itself.   

The third consecutive pairing of actress Jennifer Lawrence along with actors Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro working with this director, after Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and American Hustle (2013), Russell uses an interesting narrative structure, interweaving scenes from a televised soap opera, including legendary soap actors Susan Lucci from the now cancelled All My Children, and from General Hospital, Donna Mills, Laura Wright, and Maurice Benard, showing them in full melodramatic mode, resorting to the use of a gun to protect some underhanded family embezzlement, living in a hyper-traumatic universe that is artificially inspired, creating a parallel world with that of the living, but this holds the rapt attention of Joy’s mother Terri, played by a near unrecognizable Virginia Madsen, who literally never gets out of bed, living a life consumed by watching soap operas.  Still distraught over her failed marriage, she goes ballistics every time her divorced husband (and Joy’s father) shows up, Rudy (Robert De Niro), immediately erupting in a shouting match, with Rudy inevitably trying to take charge in the worst manner imaginable, like a bull in a China shop, breaking things on the floor that Joy is obliged to clean up afterwards.  Joy’s marriage has crumbled as well, though amicably, apparently, as her ex-husband Tony (Édgar Ramírez), an aspiring, out of work musician is living in the basement, while Joy and her two young children live with her mother and grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd), who provides an all-knowing narration, seemingly aware of the present, past, and future, reminding viewers that she always found something special in Joy, knowing that she would be successful if she just follows her dreams.  This sunny, overly optimistic view contrasts drastically with the financially dire and often contentious surroundings of this household, where the family is in a constant state of friction.  Yet in flashback mode, we see her picture book wedding, which looks like it could have been shot during THE GODFATHER (1972), including a blissful rendition of Frank and Nancy Sinatra’s “Something Stupid,” Jennifer Lawrence and Edgar Ramirez Sing ... - YouTube (2:19), while even earlier we see her at age ten playing with her best friend Jackie, showing meticulous care in cutting and folding white paper, creating an exquisite imaginary world that she keeps in a box by the side of her bed.

The internalized mindset of the story seems to be an age of self-inflicted narcissism set to the sounds of Cream singing “I Feel Free,” Cream - I Feel Free - YouTube (2:44), revealing an out-of-control family on the verge of collapse, where Joy is the only one bringing home a paycheck and the only thing holding it all together, as everyone else is pretty much useless, thinking only about themselves, where their exclusive self-centered views are continually exasperating.  Graduating from her Long Island high school at the top of her class, Joy avoided college to pick up the pieces of her parent’s failed marriage, eventually helping do the books for her father’s auto-body business, putting her constantly at odds with Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm), Rudy’s same-age daughter from another marriage, who undermines her every chance she gets.  This petty squabbling literally defines the picture, becoming a crumbling glimpse of a middle class family teetering on the edge, where it’s impossible to think anything good could come out of this continual dysfunction.  But Joy still has a best friend in Jackie (Dascha Polanco), someone who has always believed in her, her grandmother’s continual optimism, and her own unfailing belief in herself, so when she enthusiastically comes up with the bare outlines of a business project, creating a self-cleaning mop that simply outcleans the competition, she does what any young entrepreneur would do under the circumstances, ask for help, and money, from her family, which includes her father’s new girlfriend named Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), a wealthy widow with a fiercely protective interest in her late husband’s fortune.  While it’s all somewhat amateurish, where she’s inclined to place too much trust in her partners, the film does a good job in demonstrating just how significant the hurdles are in any startup business, where all the significant investments and major decisions are made prior to seeing any returns, where some investors blink when they see the amount of incurred debt and get cold feet.  Where Joy goes wrong is thinking others in the family share her same interest, where it’s curious how quickly they drop her to protect their own financial bottom line, adding to the cyclical picture of family dysfunction.  While every rags to riches story is unique, and behind every success story are a multitude of projects that fail, this film incredulously spends more time on all the things that went wrong, leading to moments of utter disillusionment, where many in the audience literally gasp that this could be happening in a Jennifer Lawrence movie, who may as well be America’s sweetheart, where her one opportunity for success may end in financial ruin.  It’s a dizzyingly complicated finale, where it gets more than a little convoluted along the way, as there are literally dozens of impasses and side roads, each more improbable than the last, turning into some kind of international corporate espionage tale, yet somehow she prevails.  It gets a bit tricky how she pulls herself out of the abyss, and it’s not for the faint of heart, but the underlying message is not how you respond to success, but to setbacks incurred along the way, where how you overcome adversity is what makes all the difference. 

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