Joy is very loosely based on the life of self-made entrepreneur and mogul Joy Mangano. Director David O. Russell attempts to strike gold a second time by reuniting the cast from Silver Linings Playbook (Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, and Bradley Cooper), but the results are less than stellar. Joy uses Mangano’s life story as a springboard to tell a story about generational family failure and a fierce determination to succeed despite hardship and tragedy.
Joy succeeds brilliantly in its acting and its family dynamic. Jennifer Lawrence anchors the film as Joy, and is the glue that holds her completely dysfunctional family together. What’s more she’s intelligent and strong willed, but is forced to put her ambitions on hold to help her family survive. As Joy struggles to be the strong matriarch her family needs, she grows from a punching bag, into a strong confident woman. Incidentally the best scene in the film is when Joy embraces her role as the family matriarch and tells her sister and father, not to interfere with her business again. Her entire demeanor, right down to her clothing, change as she takes charge of her destiny. It's done in a dramatic Godfather-Michael Corleone-to-Fredo-style and signifies how far her character evolved.
Her family, on the other hand, is a strange but well defined collection of oddballs. Robert De Niro leads as Joy’s slightly supportive but extremely irrational and passive aggressive father. Her mother, meanwhile, is addicted to a terrible soap opera and hasn’t allowed a man into her room in eight years. All the while, Joy’s ex-husband, Tony, lives in the basement and bickers with her father. Worst of all she has to deal with her extremely incompetent, jealous, and frustrating half-sister Peggy. Thankfully, not all of Joy’s life is filled with miserable people; she gets love and support from her wonderful and steadfast Grandma, her best friend, and ironically, her ex-husband. Joy is constantly hampered by stupidity caused by her family. The film really gives the impression that the family would have imploded years ago if it weren’t for Joy.
In spite of the acting and fantastic family dynamic the film has many faults. Joy is a bit on the nose with its metaphors in the film. This is especially evident when Joy reads aloud that cicada’s burrow into the ground for seventeen years, the same amount of time she had been putting off achieving her dreams because of her parents’ divorce. Moreover, in the beginning of the film, Joy and her mother are allegorically linked to a purposefully bad soap opera, which is extremely heavy handed and didn’t add much to the film. Likewise, the story tends to wander with abrupt flashbacks and flash-forwards, when all we really want to see is Joy’s struggle and ultimate triumph in the present. The near constant problems and tragedies that befall her are almost comical, but Lawrence manages to keep the film grounded. Finally, the ending leaves a lot to be desired. It dangles tantalizing tidbits of interesting information from Joy’s future that may have been cut from the film. Perhaps they ran out of time or money, either way it's an unfortunate misstep that fails to furnish the film with a satisfying conclusion.
Joy is definitely a quirky film that will undoubtedly have many supporters. The movie should have had a more fleshed out and deliberate Michael Corleone style rise to power or they should have cut the epilogue from the film entirely. Joy's meandering pace and rushed ending ruin what could have been a multi-generational family epic: detailing the struggle and ultimate triumph of Joy from the bowels of family failure through sheer will. This is a shame, because the pieces are all there to make a great film.
TLDR: Joy is an odd tale of a well characterized but truly dysfunctional American family. Buoyed by a strong performance from Jennifer Lawrence, it's an average film with untapped potential. 3/5 Stars