I need to be perfectly honest here – I cannot understand why a film was made about Joy Mangano. She did invent the Miracle Mop, something that did change household cleaning, and many other patented items. Fair enough, the story of how a woman rises from living poverty to being the head of a powerful business empire is not a bad story, and it has been told many times before throughout the years – the rags to riches story – but those films had something Joy doesn’t – purpose. I remember when David O. Russell first announced this project two years ago, I wasn’t particularly impressed with the idea – he had just come off a remarkable three-punch streak of a daunting family drama in The Fighter, a sweet romantic comedy about mental illness in Silver Linings Playbook, and an outrageous period comedy about conmen in the 1970s in American Hustle. Those films had purpose – making a film about the inventor of a mop did not seem like a good idea. To be fair, I often write off films with strange synopses like this, and and usually proven wrong. In the case of Joy, I was proven absolutely right – there was not a good reason to make this film, and I have to be blunt here – Joy is one of the most pointless films I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen some bizarre films).
The problem is, as much as Joy is a pointless film, it would be wrong to call it an entirely bad film, because there are some great parts to it. The reason Joy is a pointless film is because the subject would have worked as a smaller, independent film. If it had been made as a smaller film, it probably would’ve been a fantastic film. The problem is that David O. Russell has sold out, and he is so desperate to be a pedigree director, directing films that will automatically get a seal of approval from critics and he will be given some credibility as a great actor’s director. The aforementioned streak of three films seemed to have made Russell think he could get a free pass with anything, but he was clearly wrong, because Joy was an absolute mess, and it is actually hilarious to witness how seriously he takes this material, when the audience can’t even take it seriously. To be straight here – David O. Russell tried to make an Oscar-bait movie about the inventor of a mop. Of all the scientists, politicians, performers and world-changing individuals, dozens of which deserve biopics because of their importance in the world, David O. Russell made a biopic about the inventor of a mop, and not the first mop (that would have been a far more interesting story), but the same mop that I have sitting in my kitchen right now – and to me (and maybe it is just ignorance), I did not have any intention of seeing a film about the inventing of that mop. Maybe it was revolutionary in its time, but it certainly cannot have been revolutionary enough for an entire pedigree film to be made about it?
In recent months, there have been attempts to retool Joy as not being a biopic, but rather loosely based on the life of Joy Mangano. This is clearly a fabrication, and just attempts to dissuade comments like mine that it is a really misguided idea for a film. The character is clearly based on Mangano, and she served as an executive producer, and if you are going to use the person who you “loosely” based your film on in promotional material, where she praises the performances of the cast as people she knew, your film is a biopic. The most undeniable proof is that if this was really only loosely based on Mangano’s life, then they could’ve taken more liberties to make it a far more interesting film, but instead, sticking with the simple story of Mangano, they were restricted to make a film about a subject that is only vaguely interesting, and really doesn’t warrant an entire film, and, I am sorry to say this, probably deserves a one-hour special on TLC rather than an entire Hollywood film. It feels terrible to be so hard on this film because of the subject matter, and I am sure Joy Mangano is a great businesswoman, but unfortunately, she just doesn’t have the story that this film needed.
To understand the appeal of David O. Russell, one needs to see how he works with actors. From his first film, the black comedy Spanking the Monkey, to his war comedy Three Kings, to his existential comedy I Heart Huckabees, to his very serious sports drama The Fighter, to his magnificent Silver Linings Playbook and his messy but highly entertaining American Hustle, Russell knows how to work with actors. He makes even the most unlikable actors very likable, and he’s responsible for giving Bradley Cooper a serious career, and making Jennifer Lawrence the star she is today. He also gave Robert De Niro his best role in over a decade – and that was only Silver Linings Playbook. As flawed of a director he is, he never fails to use his actors well. Joy is the major contradiction to this rule, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cast wasted quite like this. Of course, Jennifer Lawrence was great in the lead role of Joy, but I didn’t expect any less from her. It is clear that Lawrence’s character is the only one Russell cares about, and he only concentrates on her and developing that character, nothing more. In my review for The Martian, I noted that an ensemble film with a notable lead is possible, and it has the potential to be great, as long as the main performance is great, and the supporting cast is used well. Joy is the polar opposite of this, as the leading character was good, and the supporting cast was used badly, and either the performer gave a truly terrible performance, or the character just wasn’t explored properly, and was just wasted.
Let us start off with the actor who is there purely to hook the older generations into watching Joy – Robert De Niro. De Niro is one of the greatest living actors (maybe even the greatest), but one can’t deny the last decade has been a strange one for him, where he seemed to start to sell out a bit. He made a great comeback with Silver Linings Playbook, and a memorable cameo in American Hustle showed that he worked well with David O. Russell. Earlier this year, he starred in a fluffy but fun comedy, The Intern, and never did I expect that between the Nancy Meyers comedy, and the David O. Russell pedigree biopic, that he would give a far better performance in the former. At this point, I am starting to think De Niro owes David O. Russell a favor, or perhaps he lost a bet, because I see very little reason in why De Niro – who is undeniably in demand – would accept such a useless, thankless role as Rudy, Joy’s father. He does next to nothing, and his role could’ve been performed by any actor over the age of seventy, or any person over the age of seventy. Rudy’s girlfriend was a character I was very excited for, because she was to be played by one of my favorite actresses of all time – Isabella Rossellini. I have always loved Rossellini, from her beautiful voice to her elegance. So it came as a shock to me when I spent the entirety of Joy shaking my head and wondering why she was giving such a horrendous performance. I adore her, and she plays the role well – but the role is horrible. De Niro and Rossellini are supposed to play the villains, but they are so unlikable, but they were definitely not the “love to hate” kind of villains, rather the kind of villains you just want to go away so the story can progress without them.
However, at least De Niro and Rossellini gave somewhat decent performances, which cannot be said about Elisabeth Röhm. I say this with great reflection and thought – Röhm gives one of the worst performances of the year. Her character is absolutely useless, and vile and I actually am disappointed in Russell for including her in the story. The character of Joy’s half-sister, Peggy, has very little purpose, and she just exists in the film to be another annoying presence in an already nagging film. Röhm does nothing other than to simply shout, scream and be generally nasty. The character wasn’t even important enough for her exclusion to matter. If Joy Mangano really had a half-sister who Peggy is based on, she could’ve easily been cut, because apparently, Joy is only “loosely” based on her life, and if Mangano didn’t have a half-sister, then why did they create the character? The problem is the character is so similar to De Niro and Rossellini, she could’ve been completely written out and her small purpose to the story could’ve been given to De Niro or Rossellini, who could have then had the opportunity to be a little bit more developed, rather than just being plain unlikable. It doesn’t feel great to criticize someone in quite this way, and it wasn’t the fault of Röhm herself, but the terrible writing and the fact that her character served very little purpose. The same can be said for the majority of the cast – they just are victims to bad writing, and are simply just “there”.
This is the problem with Joy – everyone around her is just vile and unlikable, and it is frustrating how terrible these characters are. However, naturally, the only likable characters in the supporting cast are those that are underused radically. Diane Ladd, an acting legend, gives such a wonderful performance as Joy’s grandmother. Sweet, lovely and sensitive, Ladd is the only great part of this mediocre film. It is wonderful to see her working so well again, and I hope it helps her find the film work she deserves. Édgar Ramírez is also very good as Joy’s ex-husband and best friend, but unfortunately he is relegated to the background far too much, and deserved more. Bradley Cooper proves his talents as a supporting actor, actually giving a pretty good performance as the competitive but helpful home shopping network executive that gives Joy her chance. The one common thread linking these three good performances? A lack of screentime. If Joy concentrated on Joy’s interactions with any one of these three characters as the main focus of the film, it would’ve been a far better film, but alas, Joy is just a trainwreck of a film, so it is only natural that it would feature some bad performances in the bigger roles, and the best performances go absolutely nowhere. It is truly unfortunate, and I wish Russell put more effort into expanding the supporting cast, or making them a little bit less one-dimensional, and point blank just using them better.
Joy is a mediocre film. 2015 has not been the year for David O. Russell. First, his atrocious lost film, Accidental Love, finally makes it debut, and Joy, easily the worst of his pedigree films, gets everyone’s hopes up, and immediately deflates all expectations, creating the biggest disappointment of the year. It is absolutely harrowing that a film for which everyone had such high hopes failed like this. It is easy to see why it failed, and I can’t fault anyone other than Russell himself, because he clearly was chasing the bait that he wanted to, and he wanted to be seen as a truly remarkable director. Russell is a great director, and that reputation was gained a long time before he started to make prestige films. Joy honestly feels like someone making a parody of a David O. Russell film. The biggest disappointment of the year.