JOY (Movie Review)

***½ out of ****

Rated PG-13
for language (including brief strong language
Released: December 25, 2015
Runtime: 124 minutes
Directed by: David O’Russell
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Isabella Rossellini, 
Édgar Ramírez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Bradley Cooper 

Joy is ranked #19 in the Honorable Mention section of my Top Ten List for 2015

Just when it seems like we’re getting more of the same from director David O’RussellJoy works a miracle halfway through.

Some may give up or pass judgment on this (eventually) effective crowd-pleaser before it gets there, and given how the first hour feels like leftovers from his past three films – including the same troupe of core stars – it’s not surprising if “O’Russell Fatigue” sets in for those who are hoping for something fresh. But, at a key turn, the freshness hits – even explodes, with textures of magical realism – into the most personal (or, at least, personally felt) film for O’Russell to date.

It’s the first of his mid-career resurgence that feels truly inspired, rather than simply “inspired by” better filmmakers (Martin Scorsese, most notably). On the awards circuit, Joy doesn’t appear to be building momentum toward the massive Oscar recognition that his recent slate (The FighterSilver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle) has enjoyed. That’s too bad too because, of that run, Joy – which also boasts the best Jennifer Lawrence performance since her indie breakthrough Winter’s Bone – is definitely the best.

I’m not a small business owner myself, but as an employee of one for nearly 15 years I’ve witnessed first-hand the extremely intense highs and lows of individuals who risk it all to build an entrepreneurial dream. Joy, which is the broadly-fictionalized account of 1990s Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano, captures the high-stakes roller-coaster of putting everything on the line.

The initial ramp-up on that ride, however, is a bit of a slow one. It’s not bad, mind you, as O’Russell applies his familiar Scorsese-lite aesthetic to his also familiar (and comically-heightened) family melodrama. But we’ve seen this from him before, even if this time he takes a multi-generational Italian clan and infuses it with some Woody Allen level neurosis.

O’Russell uses that first hour as a solid setup for the challenges that Joy must face – from her family to her career – as well as substantiating her lifelong drive to be an inventor of devices that make life simpler. It’s engaging, thanks to a sharp cast (having a lot of fun) working in simpatico with an assured directorial vision. But it’s also O’Russell coasting in his comfort zone.

But then, just as Joy begins to come into her own, so too does O’Russell as a filmmaker. When her dream broaches reality – vis-à-vis when Joy grabs the attention of upstart cable channel Home Shopping Network (the casting of HSN’s early celebrity icon is truly inspired)  – the film leaps into an all-new energized stratosphere. O’Russell captures the dizzying speed and drama of live TV sales with the hypnotic vigor of gambling at a racetrack. As the wunderkind network producer Neil Walker, Bradley Cooper orchestrates off-camera wizardry like an omnipotent Svengali. It’s all absolutely intoxicating.

From there, Joy never lets up. It’s not just an American story; it’s an American Dream story. It shows – and captures, with full emotional velocity – just how tough, how risky, and how fragile being a self-made entrepreneur can be. How the dream can turn into a nightmare. Why the rewards can be so fulfilling, and the losses so devastating.

Jennifer Lawrence, whose career has been built on variations of a spunky tough-talking strong-willed persona, stretches herself into a deeper range of emotive territory. The chutzpah’s still there (and needs to be), but her performance is also marked by moments of insecurity, tenderness, and frailty, all at vulnerable levels we’ve not seen from her before. She’s a good actress who’s finally starting to grow and mature, and she owns the screen here.

Robert De Niro strikes just the right tone of support with comically-comforting De Niro-isms, Isabella Rossellini wields a command of her own as a firm, spirited business benefactor, and Dianne Ladd maintains a necessary undercurrent of strength, faith, and hope as the matriarch who has always believed in Joy, and who won’t let her granddaughter give up. And as the ex-husband who’s as much of an albatross for Joy as he is a defender, Édgar Ramírez creates a simple-minded, flighty guy who can surprise us with thoughtful, selfless moments of much-needed grace.

After a good-but-average start, Joy erupts into an all-consuming story of a single mom’s personal ambition, and the ingenuity, toughness, sacrifice, and all-in wagers it takes to fight overwhelming, insidiously conspired odds at every turn (even from within one’s own family). Equal parts labyrinth saga and personal journey, this comes along at a time when so many have lost faith in our country and our potential. In the face of that ailing national spirit, Joy is the perfect parable to inspire.