Of all America’s contributions to the world, it is that peculiar brand of entrepreneurialism which will perhaps be among its most enduring. Not simply the idea of hard graft, although that’s certainly there too, but a fetishisation of potential which stretches across the entire culture. The certainty that a person’s latent abilities, kept low by circumstance, may under the right conditions blossom into magnificent achievement is an assumption which runs through everyday life like a river.
At its best, Joy, the latest movie from David O. Russell (and his increasingly familiar band of accomplices – this is his third feature in a row with Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, and Bradley Cooper appearing), exhibits some of the finest manifestations of this national tendency. A ruthless charisma is flashed most knowingly by Cooper in his turn as QVC marketing executive Neil Walker, but it is of course Lawrence in the titular role who brings that endlessly watchable blend of tenderness and hardened resolve – and with a kind of arch self-awareness which is frequently underestimated but here works to furnish some big unexpected laughs. De Niro, clearly enjoying his elder statesman standing among the upstarts, relaxes into much the same sort of role as he effortlessly wheeled out for Silver Linings Playbook. It would be aggravating if it weren’t so much fun, and Russell wisely limits his appearances as Rudy, Joy’s father, to a few enjoyable set-pieces.
Much like any promising young business, Joy is a film which feeds on its own momentum – a momentum which it perhaps chews through a little too quickly for its 124 minute running time. Based loosely on the story of up-by-her-bootstraps inventive millionaire Joy Mangano, the story is balanced between the two weights of personal ambition and familial duty. Joy, a high school valedictorian who gives up on her sizeable ambition to help care for her family, is slowly ground down by ceaseless domestic toil and doesn’t so much dream of success as endure it as a klaxon in her subconscious. Here family is both spur and stumbling block to her meritocratic ambitions: they provide the initial materials to get things running, but soon end up almost choking the life out Joy’s enterprise with their meddling and ill-formed certainties and just general familiness.
That may be the most central flaw in this film, the reason one walks away feeling it a little slight, a little underlit: the growth of our protagonist is one only of determination. Joy seems to spring out of her family homestead in upstate New York a fully formed business maestro; Benjamin Franklin in a stewardess’ outfit. Her education in the field is limited to being whirled around the QVC studio by Walker as he expounds his Ayn Rand-meets-Dale Carnegie blend of popular philosophy underpinning the beautiful success story that is post-industrial media-driven capitalism, and a vaguely mystical Old World ‘spirit of commerce’ type lecture from Rudy’s new Italian beau. Armed with this she faces down factory suppliers and blasts through stacks of contracts with more acumen than a $10,000 Californian patent lawyer.
This is perhaps the price one pays when depicting the life of an immensely media-savvy multi-millionaire with an exactingly curated public image to uphold; no doubt certain concessions were made to some of the real Ms. Mangano’s preferences. And, as The Martian showed us earlier this year, there is a satisfaction in watching someone blaze past the odds on nothing but their wits – Joy never feels like it drags, although that’s an attribute which turns against it in a rushed final act.
It’s the film’s handling of the family dynamics that are the real draw here. The depiction of Joy’s business dealings is too uneven to result in any real tension or opportunity for development, but a fabulous round of performances (particular credit to Virginia Madsen’s turn as Joy’s TV-drugged mother) and a sensitive touch on the scales, balancing exasperated affection with outright anger make the domestic scenes the most alive part of this movie. Russell’s habit of writing and editing on the fly work well here, with the pinwheeling back and forth between screaming matches and sympathy being a pretty good approximation of how families actually work. It also doesn’t hurt that they get all the best lines.
So ultimately, while the foray into the slightly surreal world of shopping channels and cowboy CEOs brings a couple of diverting moments, one’s wish upon the leaving the theatre is not an uncommon one: that they’d just spent less time at the office. 3/5