In the heart of Pennsylvania, a dreamy ten-year-old constructs a large estate out of scraps of paper, drowning out the inane soap operas emanating from her mother’s television set. Flash-forward a few decades and the money from her business empire has allowed her to shape her childhood fantasies with bricks and mortar. Inspired by a remarkable true story, Joy is the uplifting tale of an ambitious self-made woman who “doesn’t need a prince” to succeed. In recent years, David O. Russell has earned a reputation for producing solid dramas like Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, neither of which have centred on a human story quite this powerful. Joy is simply magnificent, his best work to date.
The American Dream has had a pretty rough treatment in the arts over the years, with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Arthur Miller and Richard Yates questioning its achievability in their literature. The director subverts this trend in Joy, rewarding his gritty protagonist’s refusals to take no for an answer in a diegetic world where the ordinary and extraordinary intermingle on a daily basis.
Jennifer Lawrence is, as ever, outstanding as the matriarchal title character. She commands the screen, seating you beside on her entrepreneurial rollercoaster, whose peaks and troughs move you to tears. She shines as the elated bride on her wedding day, the loving mother tending to her son, the collected businesswoman stoically holding her own in tête-à-têtes. Lawrence may have already won an Oscar, but this performance is a lot more demanding than her role as Tiffany in Silver Linings and has rightly landed her a handful of nominations this Awards Season. JLaw is pure class; even if the breadth of her accomplishments at such a young age is enough to make us all feel deeply inadequate.
What’s most impressive about Joy is her tenacity. Upon inventing the Miracle Mop – a product that would one day be more profitable than QVC, the home shopping channel it premiered on – Joy is condescendingly advised to “go home to her family” and is laughed out of Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper’s) office. And yet her ambition never falters. The filmmaker memorably shows this in the movie’s soundscape when Joy barges into Walker’s meeting to demand her self-wringing mop be aired on television. As the camera tracks behind her, we hear the babble of her friends’ and family’s naysaying voices swirling around in her head, fuelling her to prove them wrong. Joy makes it in a man’s world without ever resorting to her sexuality, as illustrated by her decision to ignore QVC’s suggestion that she doll up for her TV segment, preferring a simple white blouse-black trouser ensemble.
Lawrence has said that she plans on working with Russell throughout her career and it’s easy to understand why. His work tends to showcase strong characters, a tightly structured script and a proliferation of subtly stylish details. Joy – with its ethereal blue filtered townscapes, nightmarish dream sequences and carefully chosen music – is no exception. I often judge how good a film is by whether I’m still suturing myself into the narrative on the journey home. Joy closes on the eponymous figure, complete with a curly new bob and fitted leather jacket, strutting with purpose out of a Texan business transaction to the wails of a moody guitar. As I strolled down the rain-slicked pavements outside the cinema with my equally curly hair and leather jacket, I felt as if anything was possible. That’s what great cinema does.