There is a moment in Joy (just like there was a moment in Joy’s own life) where it all comes together.
Bradley Cooper, as QVC executive Neil Walker, takes inventor of the Miracle Mop Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) on a tour of the shopping channel.
You just have to accept the improbabilities of an important network figure taking an unknown businesswoman on a personal tour, because the film has a whole lot more improbabilities to throw at you when it comes to their relationship.
Anyway, he takes her to the studio floor and reveals that it is a revolving stage, and the camera keeps revolving around the room, taking in the presenters, the behind the scenes people, the telephone operators, the ever-growing sales figures, and Melissa Rivers playing her mother, Joan. We at once understand how this bizarre world works and yet still share Lawrence’s wide-eyed bewilderment about it. QVC instantly goes from a kind of joke, something you might snort derisively at as you change channels, to something fascinating. “I take this all very seriously,” Bradley Cooper says.
If only the rest of the film could make such a definitive statement.
David O. Russell seems to be unable to decide what kind of movie he is making. Is it the serious story of a determined woman battling against the odds to succeed Erin Brockovich style? Jennifer Lawrence seems to think it is. Is it a standard Russell neo-screwball comedy full of quirky characters? Supporting characters Virginia Madsen and an always welcome Isabella Rossellini (in what looks like a ludicrous wig) seem to think it is. Is it a Robert De Niro paycheck film where De Niro does a watered-down version of his Meet the Parents/Fockers character? Or is it light Oscarbait about the power of dreams using every cliché in that particular well-thumbed book? The scene where Lawrence sees her dead supportive grandmother alongside her at a moment of hardship seems to think it is.
As might be clear, the result is a mess, of the kind that even the Miracle Mop might have difficulty cleaning up. It feels like one great film, one good film and two awful-to-mediocre films have been put together quickly so that Lawrence will have something guaranteed to net her a fourth Academy Award nomination, even if that means her performance leaves the rest of the film in deep water. The kind of a water a Miracle Mop is ten times better at absorbing. That’s the last time I compare this film to the Miracle Mop, I promise.
So there are great moments. That Cooper-guided tour for one, and the scene that follows it where Joy and family watch the product bomb live on television. Unfortunately, for every great moment there was a moment that shouldn’t have even made the second draft of the screenplay, like when Lawrence follows this failure by storming into Cooper’s office when he’s mid-meeting and demanding her product gets another chance, this time with her presenting. In real life Joy was given the chance to sell her own product, but no way in hell did it happen like that. And when it leads to a sequence where Cooper tries to put her in a cheap-looking powersuit and mini skirt combo and she changes back to her shirts and trousers combo, it was all I could do to stop physically groaning at this dull makeover trope.
There is a great parallel world where this film exists not just as David O. Russell’s QVC-like hard sell to get Lawrence an Oscar, and this movie is another fun ensemble piece from the guy behind I Heart Huckabees and Three Kings. Unfortunately, that film is obscured behind gallons of the cinematic equivalent of cinematic mop water (couldn’t resist one last one. Don’t be mop-ey about it.)