JOY Review: Wringing Out the Old, Wringing In the New
When I was a kid growing up in the 1970s, I had it pretty good as a member of the upper-middle-class (a socioeconomic designation recognizable today only to those of a certain age, now that the present-day middle class is a singular, albeit dwindling, entity). It was a very nice way to grow up, but it wasn’t the only existence I’ve known. In my early 20s I resided, at least for a little while, at the other end of center: lower-middle-class. As much as I remember the privileges and benefits that came with being a member of the former, I also remember the worries and struggles of being confined to the latter. Writer/director David O. Russell taps deep into those latter worries and struggles in Joy, his latest collaboration with his muse, Jennifer Lawrence.
Lawrence plays the title role, a struggling divorced mother of two living the quintessential lower-middle-class life. She has a dead-end job that forces her to work third shift, she lives in a small home with an her mother (Virginia Madsen), her grandmother (Diane Ladd), and, in the basement, her ex-husband (Édgar Ramírez). When her father (Robert De Niro) is kicked out of his home by his girlfriend and sent to live with Joy et al, the young divorcee reaches her emotional breaking point. But a seemingly unfortunate mishap inspires Joy to invent the Miracle Mop, a mop that offers the cleanliness of hands-free wringing and the convenience of a re-washable mop head. It’s a device she thinks will revolutionize cleaning for housewives everywhere. With the help of a QVC executive (Bradley Cooper), Joy hopes to see her dream become a reality.
In a review of 2011’s Margin Call, one I wrote for a now-defunct film site, I noted just how well writer/director JC Chandor portrayed on screen not only the execution of a corporate layoff, but the emotions that come with one: “… the tension, the speculation, the wondering if your shoulder will be tapped next, the simultaneous feelings of relief and guilt that come with keeping your job.” I haven’t experienced that degree of realism in a film since … that is, until Joy. Unlike with his last two outings – the quirky-charactered Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and the groovy ’70s-themed American Hustle (2013) – here Russell, who cowrote the screenplay with Annie Mumolo, drives through the surface of his film and taps into something (in this case a socioeconomic class) in ways that go far deeper than character and clothing.
Russell marvelously presents the palpable hopelessness associated with being part of the lower-middle-class, but does so beyond the obvious (albeit ever-present) financial constraints of such an existence. Constructing characters who live under perfectly normal circumstances but giving them crippling apathy, Russell creates a sense of surrender in those characters that keeps them repressed and resigned to underwhelming existences. No one ever blames anyone else for their lots in life, no one ever says “poor me,” but no one does anything to improve their situations, either. Her parents, her half-sister (Elisabeth Röhm), and her ex-husband aren’t stuck in a rut, they’ve chosen to set up camp there because to not do so would take greater effort. Even her grandmother, the narrator of the story and the one with high hopes for Joy, does little beyond hoping.
Except Joy. Her backstory is wonderful. A child full of dreams with a knack for creating things is inspired by her grandmother, but ultimately she is repressed and smothered by the apathy of the rest of her kin until she becomes one of them. It’s familial subversion at its most awful and most accurate: they are not successful so she will not be successful. They suffer in their existence so she will suffer with them. Even when she is successful, her family is never really all-in. They support her, but there is always this unsettling combination of jealousy of her success and anticipation of her comeuppance that lingers in every scene.
When she is faced with an unexpected and devastating challenge, this lower-middle-class group of repressed people do not rally around Joy to show their support or lift her spirits; instead, they instinctively collaborate to drag her back down, their faces screaming “I told you so,” and going so far as to question why she should have dared to be successful anyway, when all that was bound to get her was failure. And that failure only gives them the resolve to remain apathetic. “See?” they think to themselves, “That’s what trying hard gets you – failure. We can’t fail if we do nothing, and not failing is almost like success, and that consolation prize will do, thank you ver much.” It’s weapons-grade passive-aggressive behavior seated around the Sunday dinner table.
What makes Joy’s ultimate success so interesting is that it isn’t the typical American Dream achieved, so much as it’s the typical American Fantasy realized. Joy gets all the credit in the world for wanting to break the cycle of negativity that has suffocated her since childhood, but hers isn’t that deliberate path of spending years to improve her life. She doesn’t climb a corporate ladder nor does she go to night school. She has a great idea, she takes a chance, and she makes it big. There is nothing wrong with this kind of success, but it certainly plays into the lower-middle-class fantasy of having problems solved by hitting the lottery, where hitting the lottery to solve problems is Plan A … and Joy’s lottery hit actually fuels her family’s cannibalistic fire. These are people who think they deserve what Joy has, despite the fact they’ve done nothing to get there, and quickly forgetting they were, at times, impediments to her success.
I have known people like this. It’s frightening how right Russell gets it.
In a collection of terrific performances, Lawrence is an exponentially brighter light than her costars. She loses herself in this role, and despite her Hollywood aura, J Law disappears in the opening scene and is forever Joy, even when glammed-up for an appearance on QVC. Cooper, in a smaller role than expected albeit a critical one, is also in top form. (And a quick positive shout-out to Melissa Rivers, playing the part of her mother, Joan Rivers, a woman as much an icon of televised shopping as an icon of comedy).
With Joy, Russell and Lawrence (and Cooper) ascend to another level as creative collaborators. Unlike their mixed previous efforts, this film transports the viewer to a destination that cannot be defined by tics, tunes, or tailors. It’s a destination that can only be measured by the trial, error, success, defeat, and perseverance it takes to survive there – a survival celebrated by the defiant display of the scars earned along the way.