Posted by Joel Copling on January 6, 2016

Approaching a classic story of American exceptionalism with the sensibility of a fairy tale and the speed of a cross-country champion, Joy proves unexpectedly wise. The proof is in how director David O. Russell's screenplay handles the title character. And this representation of Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence) is, indeed, quite a character. As a child, she was into crafty, handmade projects (often involving paper she would fold into origami shapes). As a housewife in the early 1990s, she has honed that craft into genuine entrepreneurial knowledge. It sounds familiar, but there's a riskier edge to Russell's shaping of the story. This is a fascinatingly fractured and fragmented story that quickly becomes a kaleidoscopic explosion of ideas and images.

Joy has already invented a dog collar that emphasizes comfort over restriction, and now, because of an outing that involves shards from broken glasses filled with red wine, she has the inspired idea of creating a self-wringing mop head that one can throw in the washer with the rest of the laundry. What follows is the typical struggle commonly related to the American Dream: Joy tries to secure a patent in spite of a production company that tries to wheedle her out of legitimate ownership of the idea. She meets with Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper, quite good), an executive with QVC Network, who is with some persuasion sold on this idea, though the pitch is to loud laughter from a derisive board and the personality asked to sell the product on TV is a dimwit who tanks its sales and nearly bankrupts Joy's new business.

It's a battle between ideals and business. Neil maintains that the TV personality is not at fault; rather, the product and Joy's business acumen are the culprits. Joy insists upon going on the network itself (presented as a fast-paced thing that inspires awe) in a scene that begins as gloriously awkward and concludes as simply triumphant. It's really an ode to perseverance in the face of opposition from all sides. In one corner, we have a woman determined to see her idea through to its success. On the other, we have the cogs of a free-market system that seems primed and ready to jut the optimistic out of the running for that success. It isn't exactly subtle stuff, but that's an inherent part of why it is so effective.

We also get a sense of Joy's family life: a father who cannot remain faithful (He is currently in his second marriage and seems to be courting a third by the end), a mother who seems perenially disinterested (only sitting in her bedroom and watching her soaps on the telly all day), a sister with whom she does not get along, and an ex-husband with whom she is still on good, if rocky, terms. These are caricatures, sure, but there's a delicateness to the fragile relationship between Rudy (Robert De Niro), the father, and Terry (Virginia Madsen), the mother, an understanding of the volatile relationship between Joy and Peggy (Elisabeth Rohm), the sister, and some genuine chemistry and a sense of history with Tony (Edgar Ramirez), the ex.

A large part of why this works so well is that Russell and his quartet of editors, including Alan Baumgarten, Jay Cassidy, Tom Cross, and Christopher Tellefsen, have transformed familiar material into an almost expressionistic collection of sequences that never stop moving, moving, moving toward the inevitable goal of opening up Joy's story as one that is truly affecting in specific and universal ways. Another reason is Lawrence, whose empathetic portrayal of Joy is the film's highlight. A scene at the end in which she confronts a man who is currently suing her for stealing his idea also showcases a ruthlessness that is surprising from such an otherwise-unassuming presence. Joy is such an experience: sneaking into the viewer's good graces long before a denouement that solidifies its status as an exceptional character study.

Film Information

Jennifer Lawrence (Joy), Robert De Niro (Rudy), Edgar Ramirez (Tony), Virginia Madsen (Terry), Elisabeth Rohm (Peggy), Isabella Rossellini (Trudy), Diane Ladd (Mimi), Bradley Cooper (Neil Walker), Dascha Polanco (Jackie).

Directed and written by David O. Russell.

Rated PG-13 (brief language).

124 minutes.

Released on December 25, 2015.