There is a moment in “Joy” before the real-life titular character’s Miracle Mop has taken off when she’s desperately peddling her invention in a K-Mart parking lot to shoppers passing by without a second glance. Eventually she concocts a ruse, putting her best friend in charge of sales and then masquerading, along with her daughter, as a disinterested shopper suddenly intrigued by this self-wringing mop, which she takes and studies and uses like it’s the best thing since Gwen Stefani’s Urban Decay Eyeshadow before offering a few kernels of housekeeping wisdom, and voila! Other shoppers are drawn in. Sure, sure, the cops are called and kick Joy and her daughter and her best friend out while confiscating the mop prototype, but how many successful television stars had their first show cancelled?
Jennifer Lawrence’s previous two cinematic unions with writer/director David O. Russell, “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle”, involved, at least partially, the idea of storytelling, whether it was the latter’s role-playing in the name of Abscam or Lawrence’s character of the former penning fake letters to her burgeoning love interest to hold him at bay. And in its own way, “Joy” is all about storytelling too, a biopic that isn’t really a biopic at all, never calling Joy “Joy Mangano” and never referring to the Miracle Mop by its officially designated name. Instead Russell’s film is all about a woman named Joy, played by Jennifer Lawrence, beaten down by her too-busy life who finally stands up and through a little hard-nosed ingenuity decides to re-write her own life story.
As the movie opens, Joy is no star; she’s a supporting character in her own madcap family. That begins to change, however, in an at-sea sequence that finds her cleaning up red wine from a boat deck spilled by others who predictably leave her to do the grunt work. This leads to shards in the mop head which leads to blood on Joy’s hands when she tries to wring the mop head out which leads to her A Ha! Moment, inventing her own mop head and eventually pitching it as an idea to a burgeoning TV exec for QVC, Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper). He might give her the platform she needs to ascend, but she’s the one who makes it happen, taking the stage at a delicate moment to peddle her wares, a re-take of that scene in the K-Mart parking lot that she nails. And Lawrence takes a moment that in real life is so often nothing more than a monotonous Saturday morning televised sales pitch and transforms it into something , taking embodying such a radiant warmth that you almost want to find the nearest telephone and make a call.
Admittedly, the film’s tone wobbles, kicking off as a dysfunctional family screwball sorta comedy before morphing into the mobilization of a one-woman empire, but that’s because Joy herself is trying to break free from her dysfunctional family and their screwball hijinks and star in a solo act. Tone is of less importance to Russell then the believability of his heroine navigating the minefield of an ever-evolving environment apparently existing at every turn to try and smite the fortune awaiting her, and the believability is grounded in Lawrence’s performance, one that isn’t as manic like her other Russell collaborations and more about exuding a fierce inner cool. And if her fortune accrual is foregone, well, the entertainment of “Joy” isn’t derived from suspense of Will She? Or Won’t She, because we know she will, but the I-Won’t-Be-Stopped mentality Joy thrillingly adopts as she does. And when the story she is authoring for herself as the Miracle Mop Maven is threatened, whether by her own oblivious family members or nefarious manufacturers, she goes to great lengths to retain rights to her own underdog tale.
Russell seems unsure how to end the film, tacking on what’s really an afterword as an epilogue, which is unfortunate but not fatal, and simply a disappointing sign that he didn’t recognize he already had the perfect end in the form of a wordless shot, down in the Lone Star State, Texas’s nickname very much becoming the perfect epithet for our leading lady, where her character must go to haggle with a cowboy who thinks he knows best until he’s made to realize he doesn’t because Joy does. Before this sequence, however, we see Joy in movie star sunglasses, on the sidewalk, outside a Christmas-themed store where paper snow falls and ensconces her, a little Hollywood magic which is a look that suits this entrepreneur just right. She’s ready for her close-up.