Once at a Halloween party, I had the uniquely insulting experience of a man in a dress explaining to me that rape culture is a myth. What does this have to do with David O. Russell’s latest collaboration with Jennifer Lawrence? Well, Joy offers a similar sense of condescending mansplaining of female experience. Lucky us.
Written and directed by Russell, Joy spins the true story of Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano into a kind of mafia movie, minus the violence and criminal activity. A divorced single mother working an unskilled job she loathes, Joy is on the brink of breaking down thanks in large part to her ever-feuding parents (Virginia Madsen and Robert De Niro), her endlessly sneering half-sister (Elisabeth Rohm), and her deadbeat ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez) who lives in her basement. When a moment of inspiration strikes, she conceives of a mop that would be the beginnings of her eventual empire, a success hinted to by invasive voiceover from her doting grandmother (Dianne Ladd).
Joy’s story is inspiring, as she repeatedly overcomes obstacles in production, confronts naysayers, and demands to be taken seriously despite being uneducated and (gasp!) a woman. Russell’s angle of building her arc like that of a mobster building his empire is intriguing, and an idea the second trailer leans hard into. But it never really gels, in part because Joy never pulls a gun on anyone or in any way behaves shady or particularly cutthroat. The real problem here is that Russell loathes nearly every character save his heroine, and it makes for a grueling viewing experience and a misogynistic message about success.
As he’s best known for movies with male protagonists—like The Fighter, Three Kings and Silver Linings Playbook—I was curious to see how Russell would handle a female-focused story with themes of friendship, sisterhood, motherhood, and gender politics. The short answer is: like an asshole. Joy opens on a soap opera where glamorously dressed women argue in insipid circles about men, power and love. It’s cartoonish and absurd, yet this soap draws in Joy, her mother and grandmother like moths to a flame. From the first scene, Russell is mocking women by mocking a medium they’re known to love. And it doesn’t get much better.
The women of Joy are mostly paper-thin stereotypes: the neurotic mother, the jealous half-sister, the saintly grandma, the sweet daughter whose eyes are only ever focused on her mother’s example. Isabella Rossellini gives a strange and intriguing turn as a wealthy widow/investor, who is not so easily pinned down. But she doesn’t make much sense either, spinning from supportive to urging for bankruptcy without warning. Alternately, Joy is defined by how she’s not like these simple women. She won’t be satisfied to live a quiet life, depend on a “prince,” or waste away in envy of others. Likewise, she’ll reject the beauty standards of her QVC peers. Favoring pants and a simple blouse, Joy rebuffs their glitzy dresses just as she refuses to fit into the mold of wife and mother that the menfolk tell her (repeatedly and to her face) she should settle for.
It’s frustrating that Russell presents sexism in his film as being so in your face. Joy’s father literally says in front of her and her daughter, “It’s my fault. I gave her the confidence to think she’s more than just a bored housewife.” Men in a business meeting openly mock and make lewd comments when presented with her mop prototype. Women know that sexism in our personal and professional lives is rarely so overt, and that’s actually why it can be so difficult to battle. If someone says something blatantly sexist, it’s easier to call them out. If they are slyly suggesting your failures are because of your sex, it’s harder to make the same point without being dismissed as “emotional” or “overly sensitive.” But this is a rant for another time.
Watching the film, I was reminded of how Lawrence has said in interviews that Russell sometimes thinks of her as one of the guys to the point he’ll use male pronouns when referring to her, and how they talk “man-to-man.” At the time, Vivian wrote his version of respect for women sounded “more like tolerating— you know, until a woman can prove herself to rise above her gender.” And that’s it. Russell wants us to think Joy is remarkable not so much because she perseveres, but because she manages to be more than a woman. She’s a woman with power, a matriarch who make her own rules—like a gangster! He never seems to realize how that is an insulting angle. Ironically, he sets up De Niro to be a laughable yet lovable misogynist, womanizing widows and patronizing his daughters. Yet, Russell doesn’t recognize that he falls into the same trap, only respecting a woman when she’s proved to be more than just a wife and mother.
When the end credits rolled, I was reminded that it was Bridesmaids co-writer Annie Mumolo who worked on the story with Russell. But he alone—apparent in a solo title card—gets screenplay credit. As I left the theater, I began to wonder what Mumolo’s movie would have been like, as she’s shown a true gift for capturing the unique nature of female bonds. To be clear, being a man is not Russell’s problem in making Joy. There are plenty of beautiful movies about the female experience made by men. Just recently we’ve been gifted John Crowley’s Brooklyn, Todd Haynes’ Carol and George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road. It seems Russell’s problem is more that his sense of exceptionalism is apparently sexist.
There are some truly interesting aspects of Joy’s story. Despite being divorced, she maintains a respectful and loving friendship with the father of her children. Her childhood friend (Orange Is the New Black’s Dascha Polanco) is a stalwart supporter and adviser in each stage of her life-changing journey. And Joy is dedicated to being a better example to her daughter Christie (Aundrea Gadsby) than her own mother was. But much like the Margaret Keane biopic Big Eyes—another movie that invoked recurring voiceover to make up for poor character development—Joy never spends time on developing these relationships. Instead, it wedges in repetitive family drama (how many scenes do we need of her family telling her she’s dumb, wrong and worthless), tedious arguments about figures, and that ultimate “women’s movie” cliche of having its heroine cut her hair to show she’s changed and matured. Short hair! Well now she means business!
Ultimately, Joy is fatiguing and joyless. Sure, Bradley Cooper pops by for a hot minute with bad hair and bravado to spare. And Lawrence delivers a stirring performance that could well get Oscar buzz. But the pacing is deadly, leaping into flashbacks and flash forwards with dubious prompting that severs any sense of flow. More importantly, Russell misses that what makes Joy compelling is that she was an ordinary woman who worked hard and willed herself to a better life. Instead, he insists she was destined to be special, and then slops on lots of naysayers for what feels like a none-too-subtle commentary about his own thoughts on creating: Don’t let the assholes get you down because you are a genius and no one else needs to understand that because they are assholes! Right? Okay.