Friday, December 25, 2015

Joy: Not quite enough of it

Joy (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for fleeting profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.31.15

Few stories are more engaging than rags-to-riches empowerment sagas.

Particularly when they’re (somewhat) true.

Joy (Jennifer Lawrence, center) is astonished, and angered, when she discovers the
degree to which her half-sister Peggy (Elisabeth Röhn) has betrayed her ... a
transgression that their father, Rudy (Robert De Niro), blandly tolerates.
Writer/director David O. Russell’s third collaboration with star Jennifer Lawrence is based loosely on the astonishing life of American inventor/entrepreneur Joy Mangano, whose career arc is just about the best modern Horatio Alger story one could imagine.

Unfortunately, Russell has mucked it up a bit, by surrounding his leading lady with a motley crew of supporting characters, some of them just-plain-weird burlesques who belong in an entirely different film.

As was the case with Russell’s American Hustle — which sorta/kinda depicted what went down during the FBI’s late 1970s/early ’80s Abscam sting — the telling here is more “interpretive” than literal fact. Thanks to this wealth of oddly eccentric characters, at times the heightened tone feels like the off-kilter universe we’d expect in a Coen brothers movie (particularly Fargo).

But the key elements in Russell and co-plotter Annie Mumolo’s story are authentic, and the film is fueled by another powerhouse performance from Lawrence. If Joy ultimately lacks the exhilarating pizzazz of American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook, it’s not for lack of effort on her part. It’s more a case of the various thematic elements not coalescing quite as successfully, and some of the characters being too off-balance.

I’m also not happy with the clumsy narrative device. The story is introduced and occasionally punctuated by off-camera commentary from our heroine’s grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd), speaking from a not-too-distant remove. Although her remarks smooth a few of the flashback transitions, for the most part this gimmick is superfluous, even bothersome.

A brief prologue introduces Joy as a little girl (played here by Isabella Crovetti-Cramp), with imaginative sparkle; she’s the sort of kid who builds her own little worlds with scissors, tape and construction paper.

It’s likely part defense mechanism, as the home environment is tempestuous. Her father, Rudy (Robert De Niro), flits from one woman to the next; he also has anger-management issues, although his occasional rages never are directed at Joy or her half-sister Peggy (Madison Wolfe).

As children, the girls seem like comfortable companions, but that bond has fractured when the story proper begins. We catch up with Joy (now Lawrence) as a young single mother with two children. “Single” doesn’t mean isolated, however; for various financial and emotional reasons, her entire family is crammed into Joy’s house.

Her soap opera-addicted mother, Terry (Virginia Madsen), occupies a front room that contains only a bed and a television set; she’s a virtual shut-in with (seemingly) little sense of reality. Grandma Mimi apparently has a bedroom upstairs; Peggy (now Elisabeth Röhm) always seems to be around, so maybe she bunks with Mimi.

Joy’s ex-husband Tony (Édgar Ramírez), a struggling musician, lives in the basement. Worse yet, Rudy has just been kicked out by his most recent girlfriend, and therefore joins Tony in that same basement. The two men can’t stand each other; Joy separates them with a “wall” denoted by a lengthy section of toilet paper.

Joy works as an airline reservation hostess; she also does the books for Rudy’s auto-body shop. More crucially, she’s the super-mom glue who binds this fractured — and fractious — family unit. And although she excels in that role, it obviously has worn her down.

Many of these scenes are difficult to watch, because Lawrence so persuasively sells her character’s utter exhaustion and discouragement. Joy’s environment and daily grind are a working-class nightmare, and Lawrence depicts that soul-deadening vibe quite persuasively.

Sadly, and most crucially, Joy somehow lost track of her creative spirit; everyday reality has smothered her personal search for happiness. It returns quite unexpectedly, while reading a book about cicadas to her daughter. The insects remain dormant for 17 years: precisely the length of time, Joy realizes, that she has remained moribund.

A tantalizing idea percolates.

Sketches, chats and a few prototypes later — it helps to know guys in a body shop — Joy presents her family with a revolutionary kitchen mop highlighted by a head made from “a continuous loop of 300 feet of cotton” that out-absorbs any conventional mop. Better yet, the head can be wrung out without coming into contact with the user’s hands. Best of all, the head can be detached, cleaned in a washing machine, and reattached for future use.

And thus begins an up-and-down saga of lawyers, copyright searches, investors and production plants: a lengthy process that dangles promise while frequently snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. As is Russell’s nature, this wildly improbable adventure unfolds amid bursts of surreal nightmares, hyper-melodramatic soap opera sequences ... and snowflakes. (Don’t ask me to explain the snowflakes.)

By now, Joy’s “family” has expanded to include Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), an Italian widow who has become Rudy’s current squeeze, and who has considerable wealth from her late husband’s estate. She becomes Joy’s “sugar mama” and primary investor, but this role comes with a painful price: the privilege of joining all the others in criticizing Joy’s every move.

Actually, Trudy is one of the story’s problems. It’s impossible to get a bead on her, even given the frangible rules of Russell’s somewhat warped reality. At times, Trudy seems a shrewd ally; then, in the blink of an eye, she becomes mean. Rossellini also gives the role a crafty veneer that makes us assume the worst.

Peggy, meanwhile, has become a hateful shrew who blossoms into a jealous bee-yatch the nanosecond it appears as though Joy might enjoy a bit of happiness and personal fulfillment. Röhm is quite convincing in this role, giving Peggy an outward appearance of grudging tolerance that makes her occasional nasty acts and outbursts even more eyebrow-raising.

Peggy therefore feels as real-world authentic, as Trudy is fantasy-realm undefined. I’ve spent time among families unlucky enough to have a Peggy (male or female) in their midst; resentful sibling rivalry is supremely unsettling, and Röhm nails it. Peggy is simply chilling.

Bradley Cooper pops up in the second act as the workaholic Neil Walker, the cultured mastermind of a fledgling cable network known as QVC. Cooper positively dazzles as Walker chaperones Joy through his massive command center, pausing to weigh in on everything from the on-air talents’ coiffure and clothing, to camera angles and placement, to product scripting and performance timing.

And product selection, of course.

Walker governs this realm like an orchestra conductor, and Cooper’s performance is breathtaking: most particularly during one brief product pitch, from opening comments to the anticipated flow of phone calls. (Watch his hands.) If you’ve no idea how such an operation takes place, this sequence is both instructive and mesmerizing.

Joan Rivers had just begun her reign as one of QVC’s most popular and successful sellers, during this story’s time frame; in a clever casting coup, she’s played here by her own daughter, Melissa. Dascha Polanco has a pivotal role as Jackie, Joy’s longtime best friend; Jimmy Jean-Louis has a droll part as a plumber name Toussaint.

Ramírez’s Tony is the story’s second most interesting character (behind Joy, of course). At first he seems little more than an ambitionless layabout who merely annoys everybody, but that’s deceptive. Tony is smarter than he looks; he’s also a lot more compassionate.

As Mimi observes, at one point, he and Joy were terrible at being married, but they’re very good at being friends. Ramírez shades his performance with considerable subtlety, and it’s fun to watch Tony’s actual self emerge and surmount our preconceived notions.

Production designer Judy Becker “dresses” Joy’s dilapidated house with an unerring sense of detail, thereby emphasizing the contrast when Joy stumbles her way into Walker’s opulent surroundings. Music supervisor Susan Jacobs fulfills Russell’s customary demands for well-placed vintage pop and rock songs, with underscore elements contributed by David Campbell and West Dylan Thordson.

The obvious entrepreneurial theme aside, this saga mostly is about love and family: the particularly messy type. Despite a frequent atmosphere of mutual loathing, at their core these people truly care about each other (except for Trudy, who defies description). They’re just not very good at expressing such devotion, frequently allowing baser qualities to surface.

Ultimately, though, the mix doesn’t quite set. Joy is another case of the total being less than the sum of its parts; it feels as though Russell never quite made up his mind, in terms of how he wanted to tell this story.

But this certainly is true: When you research Joy Mangano after seeing this film — and don’t do it beforehand, because that’d be a major spoiler — you’ll be amazed at how much Russell and Mumolo lifted from real life.

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