No Joy in Mudville

Remember that Saturday Night Live commercial for “Shimmer” and how Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin quarreled about whether it was a floor wax or a dessert topping? They could quarrel just as much about Joy, the latest film by director/screen writer David O. Russell starring Jennifer Lawrence.

Is it a Cinderella fairy tale? Or a family soap opera? Or a Horatio Alger story? Or Sweet Smell of Success? Or a meta-take on all these things? Enter Chevy Chase to explain that yes, Joy is all that, and more! It even stars the best mop you ever tried, and it’s so absorbent you don’t even need to use Shimmer to protect your floors. In other words, Joy is all over the map, unproductively (in fact joylessly) so.

The premise is promising enough, based on the life story of home-shopping entrepreneur Joy Mangano (who executive-produced, so one assumes a substantial degree of accuracy, at least from Mangano’s self-view). As a girl, she likes to build paper-doll worlds and asserts that she needs no Prince Charming in them. There are fairytale elements throughout: the omniscient from-the-grave narrator, literally looking down from above upon Joy, and a late shot of “snow” on a Dallas street, punctuated by a Danny Elfman Christmassy theme.

Joy’s first good idea, which is for a choke-proof flea collar for dogs, is swiped by a Big Business before she thinks to take out a patent on it. Still, when she grows up, she’ll make things people need. One detail suffices to describe the movie’s first half: little Joy’s paper town is destroyed in a family quarrel by her father in the midst of a divorce fight. Make that two details. The invention that becomes her first success is a super-absorbent mop that you can clean without touching the head. She gets the inspiration when she’s cleaning up (someone else’s, natch) spilled wine with shattered glass intermingled and slices up both palms trying to wring the mop dry. With the glass mixed in. Who does that, except impossibly noble fairytale characters serving impossibly venal jerks?

To judge from his other films, writer-director Russell is very interested in family hostility. And is Joy’s family ever a piece of work (remember, this is her point of view). Todd Solondz would’ve turned them down as a film subject, so excessive are they in their moral ugliness, selfish neediness, and overt expression of same. Joy is cut down in some fashion by every family member (except the inspirational grandmother-narrator, played by Diane Ladd). It’s Cinderella surrounded by a whole world of stepsisters, living off her, or using her as a servant, all the while telling her to forget her dreams of becoming an inventor.

Russell’s The Fighter (2010) was a much better film about the conflict between family and career, as up-and-coming boxer Micky Ward is suffocated and mentally beaten down by a matriarchal family and a junkie brother’s past almost-glory. But that was a working-class Irish clan filled with realistically big, loud personalities; the relationship between Micky and Dicky was complex on both sides; and the family stuck by Micky and his dreams (partly for self-serving reasons, sure, but still). Here we have a petit bourgeois family, at least aspirationally, and while such families are obviously not without faults, the sort of blunt, even witless, cruelty on display here isn’t typical among them. It’s not really played for comedy, either—at least not successfully. Why on earth does Joy, a woman who’s clearly supposed to possess an entrepreneur’s drive and moxie, stay with this gallery of grotesques?

The clue might be in the television soap operas Joy’s mother watches from her bed, which frequently take over the screen. Russell has taken great trouble with these, using real-life soap actors in footage of his own creation. To some extent, it’s a stupid question to ask why Dynasty and Dallas and the like exert such appeal. Such dramas were and are fun for us in their luxurious escapism and vulgar trashiness. Joan Collins and the late Larry Hagman knew how to chew scenery. Russell plainly understands this, directing Susan Lucci, Donna Mills, and Maurice Benard to deliver to the rafters . . . of the theater across the street. But if the domestic conflict in Joy is intended as a kind of parallel to Alexis’ or J.R.’s machinations against Krystle or Bobby, it’s too unrealistic in the content for the realistic playing and setting.

The sequences that work best come in the middle of the film, once Joy has invented the self-cleaning mop, and goes out to try to sell it. One scene takes place in a K-Mart lot, where Joy has a friend “selling” the mop out of a car truck and Joy, for the benefit of the handful of people clustered around, pretends to be someone learning how awesome the product is. It’s funny, and Lawrence gets to play with meta-acting, her “spontaneity” emphasizing not only advertising’s general fakery but also the essential bush-leagueness of Joy’s efforts to be her own ringer.

Thanks to one of her ex-husband’s connections, she’s able to worm her way into an audition with the chief of a home-shopping TV network—itself a revolutionary new enterprise at the time—  called QVC. Here the pace picks up. Enter Bradley Cooper playing Neil Walker, a big-league entrepreneur, and it’s not just his innate movie star charm but also that he’s the first person not to use and abuse Joy. She sells her idea to Neil, but television sales go poorly because The Pitch (and the Pitchman) isn’t right. Joy has to pitch it herself, and as herself. Just as she did to Neil in the first place. And so we revisit the authenticity theme: She needs to recreate authenticity on-demand, for an audience.

The complication here is that Jennifer Lawrence has to be made up (and made “down” if you will) to be authentic Joy. Or is this only a problem because when we look at her we see “J-Law,” the public persona of Hollywood’s current It Girl? Probably both. “It’s all about sincerity; once you can fake that, you’ve got it made,” goes an old acting adage and that’s ultimately what the middle section of Joy is about. Success—in business, acting, and other enterprises—is a mixture of a good idea and determination on the one hand (the film thankfully doesn’t slight this side of business success), and luck and b.s. on the other (as self-made people, or some of them, are wont to downplay).

Too bad that in its third “act,” Joy decides it wants to be The Insider (quite a popular aspiration for the current crop of movies, as has been noted in this space). Billing woes arrive, along with patent disputes and other backroom skullduggery that doesn’t feel like it has much to do with familial dysfunction or the art of the sell. Except that it may have happened to a real person in real life. That things may actually have happened, however, doesn’t make them dramatically compelling or aesthetically pleasing.

In addition, as much as I didn’t care for The Big Short and its methods, that movie at least was plainly trying to turn Wall Street credit swaps into a procedural that could draw viewers into the nitty-gritty of a subject. Here, the fraudulent business machinations are merely given a lick and a promise.

Joy closes with an unforgivable montage cramming into four minutes or so the next 20 years of the entrepreneur’s life, from the achievement of her first success (the close-up of Lawrence walking away from a Dallas hotel should be the end of the film) to her becoming a tycoon rich enough to patent dozens more products and emulate her mentor by backing other fledgling entrepreneurs. Joy Mangano at the end is her own global brand, the sort of person Hollywood makes biopics of, and J-Law didn’t age one bit in those decades. Once you can fake looks, you got it made.