Exuberant, galumphing, hypertensive, depressive, choppy, messy, consternating and ultimately a confounding success, David O. Russell’s “Joy” is his “Heaven Knows What”: Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) plays a young woman of determination who is surrounded by a world of shit that exists to bite, kick, tear her down—employers, mother (Virginia Madsen), father (Robert De Niro), sister (Elisabeth Röhm), grandmother (Diane Ladd). Bring on the gargoyles. Almost everyone she meets on her ride toward strange success as an aspiring entrepreneur who invents and manufactures a mop that will become a smash success on home-shopping television is an intolerant, near intolerable gargoyle, ones whose obstacles Joy must surmount, outwit, outwork, out-love at every turning of the clock and the plot. The convolutions, spun out of Russell’s rewrite of a screenplay by Annie Mumolo, based on the life of inventor Joy Mangano, resist synopsis in a way that suggests the movie may have been resistant to shapely editing as well. But all of Russell’s recent emanations—“Silver Linings Playbook,” “American Hustle”—have been, from frame to frame, asserting a willingness, nay, right, to spin out of control with centripetal fury. Visually, the framings are erratic and often strange, as if the editors were catching images being tossed through the ether. The pile-on of pitiful reversals is bitter to bite into for at least the first hour, annoying in repetition, and the fact that Lawrence is again notably young for a role in a Russell film, aging twenty years without aging a minute, makes for an odd, if not disconcerting disconnect. The movie feels like a toppling misfire. But then there are points in the second half where Joy begins to assert herself, and Russell and Lawrence’s portrait of a bright and innovative and determined little girl who becomes an unbeatable woman gains sweet emotional force even as the story fragments and turns on itself again and again. But it’s a fine choice when the movie makes a leap back in time that permits the final scene, a moment where the future lies ahead of Joy, where success and sustained satisfaction have only just become possible, and in bright sunlight on a Dallas street, snowflakes clutter and cluster and fall upon her upturned face. (This is also the poster’s image.) The future is upon her, and the bric-a-brac and banter and bullheadedness and bullshit fall away and genuine elation arrives, and “Joy” is revealed as a true woman’s picture, and the true woman is Jennifer Lawrence. With Bradley Cooper, Edgar Ramirez, Isabella Rossellini, Susan Lucci. 123m. (Ray Pride)
“Joy” opens Friday, December 25.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published later this year.