Jennifer Lawrence is wonderful in Joy, her third collaboration with former director-non-grata David O. Russell, but the movie is less impressive than its star. With a start-stop screenplay from Russell and plenty of disappearing characters, Joy is uneven and superficial, yet it manages to entertain. Lawrence plays Joy Mangano, a pioneering female investor and inventor of the self-wringing Miracle Mop; a role she is too young for but nonetheless kills. Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper also re-team with Russell to play Joy's cantankerous father and a QVC executive, respectively. Joy feels small but also distant, and I connected more with Lawrence's energy than her character. Russell does not introduce the struggling inventor plot threads until an hour into the film, and the preceding scenes are not particularly memorable, offering only glimpses into Joy's life. Like a counter of ingredients without a recipe card, Joy never comes together as a cohesive whole.
Those familiar with Russell's previous efforts - The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, among others - will recognize his affinity for quirky characters, underdogs and messy, true-life struggles. Most people will not recognize Mangano by name, but will be at least tangentially familiar with home-shopping networks and self-wringing mops. That Russell tells the story of this strong female is not unexpected given his resume, but Joy certainly lacks the stranger-than-fiction plots of his earlier films. This film is mostly an excuse to allow Lawrence to further flex her acting muscles, and the supporting cast, while certainly accomplished, assimilates accordingly.
The film's opening hour sees Joy marry, divorce and struggle to support her young children. Joy's ex-husband, Tony (Edgar Ramirez), lives in her basement, and Joy's mother, Terry (Virginia Madsen), is racked by phobias that keep her confined to her bedroom, where she compulsively watches soap operas. Joy's father, Rudy (De Niro), and sister, Peggy (Elisabeth Rohm), are also around to meddle in her affairs. Joy uses the protagonist's grandmother, Mimi (Diane Ladd), as a sporadic narrator. Mimi believed in Joy and was comparatively less crazy than the rest of the Mangano family, but Russell never shows the audience why Mimi is important. The narration feels out of place and trivial, as if the dialogue was trimmed heavily in post-production. Joy also has a habit of introducing characters before quickly removing them from large stretches of the plot. This feels less like a stylistic choice than weak storytelling, and may also be a consequence of editing the film to its 124-minute length.
Russell frames the family drama in the soap-opera haze of Terry's television, and none of that is as interesting as Joy's struggle to finance her company, with help from Rudy's girlfriend, Trudy (Isabella Rossellini). Here, Lawrence shines as Joy stares down crooked suppliers, tells off her scheming sister, and returns from the brink of financial ruin to hawk her own product on television. Much of Joy feels hollow, but in these moments, under the bright lights of the production studio, you can understand the immense pressure Joy is facing. While the story is less compelling than it could have been, Lawrence is uniformly excellent. Her performance is natural and without pretense, and she displays a host of emotions with grace and subtlety. Russell uses four editors to hack Joy to pieces instead of letting the narrative flow, which lessens the overall effect. Mangano's story is compelling, but Joy focuses too heavily on the wrong parts. The home-shopping craze of the time is more interesting than the melodrama, and, had Russell focused on that subject, Joy might have been a more memorable film.
The 1.85:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image replicates the theatrical experience and complements the Super 35-shot material. Russell eschews a glossy, digital appearance, and instead gives Joy a raw, slightly grainy, desaturized look. Fine-object detail is abundant, as is texture, and the image is overall clear and sharp. Blacks are inky and shadow detail is strong. Colors are nicely saturated and skin tones accurate. There are moments of softness when Russell chooses to flash back in time, but I noticed no issues with aliasing, compression artifacts or digital tinkering.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is surprisingly immersive, with plenty of surround use and speaker-panning background effects. Dialogue is crisp and clean, and is balanced appropriately with effects and score. There is a lot of subtle work in the surrounds here, and this is certainly an impressive mix for a dialogue-driven film. There are Spanish, French, Portuguese and Russian 5.1 lossy dubs, and a plethora of subtitle options.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This single-disc release includes a code to redeem an iTunes or UltraViolet HD digital copy. The first pressing includes a gatefold slipcover, with matching cover art and review pull-quotes inside the flap. Joy, Strength and Perseverance (20:21/HD), offers interviews from the cast and crew about the project. Times Talk with Maureen Dowd (1:07:42/HD) is a lengthy, somewhat informal interview with Russell and Lawrence. You also get an unnecessary Photo Gallery (0:38/HD) of publicity stills.
Jennifer Lawrence is again excellent in Joy, her third collaboration with director David O. Russell. The film tells the story of inventor and investor Joy Mangano, who created a self-wringing mop and marketed it on television. The stop-start narrative and superficial plot undermine Lawrence's committed performance, and she is certainly more impressive than the film around her. Recommended for her Lawrence's work.