There’s a moment early in JOY that feels like it’s set in the middle of a snow globe. The characters seem isolated from the world around them, depicting something true even though everything around them is clearly false. To complete the allusion, they are surrounded by darkness while white flecks of supposed “snow” drifts down around them.
Besides feeling like a lovely experience, we soon realize that it’s not a bad way to experience a story. We can imagine we are in the happy place the globe comes from, and look at the outside world through the perspective of warped glass.
Unfortunately, snow globes are tremendously fragile…which is probably why so few movies decide to set their stories inside of one.
Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) is a young woman from Long Island who once had big dreams. She was going to create things, meet people, go places. She wasn’t going to be limited by anyone or anything around her and make something grand of her life. However, life – as it often does – had other plans. As our story begins in-earnest, Joy is 33, divorced, a customer service rep for Eastern Airlines, and raising two young children.
Her mother Terry (Virginia Madsen) recluses herself in one bedroom – devoting her days to watching soap operas. Her ex-husband Tony (Édgar Ramírez) lives in the basement, still hoping that his music career will take-off. Her father Rudy (Robert DeNiro) is marched back to her after his second wife tires of him, and also takes up residence in the basement. None of them offer Joy much help to her already stressful life.
All of the responsibilities and decisions seem to pile up on Joy like so much of that cold winter snow that swirls around the film.
Soon though, Rudy makes a connection through a personal ad and begins to devote his life to Trudy (Isabella Rossellini) – a widowed heiress. When the whole family goes out to meet her for an afternoon on her boat, a broken bottle of wine gives Joy an idea.
In trying to clean the mess with a mop, she thinks about the mop’s shortcomings and hatches a concept to design a better one. After getting capital for a prototype from a reluctant Trudy, Joy begins to look inward in search of the ambitious dreamer she once was. She knows her idea is good, she knows people like her that live lives just as stressful will agree…but how to reach them?
Tony comes through thanks to a friend of a friend, and points her towards Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper) – the head of QVC (a precursor to the Home Shopping Network).
It’s a moment of truth for Joy. Can she sell the businessman – and an entire consumer base – on her idea? Can she go places, meet people, and create things? Or does life have other plans?
The beating heart of Joy is Jennifer Lawrence. In a role that puts her in darned near every scene, we often look to her to be our compass. She is playing a woman beyond her in age and experience, so in theory the starlet should be over-matched…but she never is. She reminds us of every woman we’ve ever met that had to grow-up quickly; those that contain so much spark and exuberance, but find their spark dimmed somewhat thanks to rejection and disappointment.
Lawrence rises to the occasion and shows us genuine hustle and determination. Whether its Joy trying to provide for her family, prove her naysayers wrong, or to show her professional contacts just what she and her ideas are capable of, Lawrence taps into something very genuine. She reminds us of somebody that we used to know, perhaps even somebody we used to be.
The pity of JOY is that the film fails the performance. Compelling as Lawrence’s work is, it feels like something we’ve seen before…a familiar song we can all hum along with. In the early going, things are played a bit more absurdly, and it goes a long way to heighten the talk of want, dreams, and disappointment. Sure, it’s a device, but one that feels wonderfully absurd, and counterweights so much familiarity.
However, somewhere in the middle of JOY, the film seems to suffer a strange sort of identity crisis. All of those curious digressions and syncopated rhythms that came and went during the film’s first half strangely vanish and the film begins to start playing things straight. If the first half of this film was a daytime watcher’s fever dream, then all of a sudden their cable has been cut and they have violently woken-up. Everything settles down in the hopes of telling us one woman’s inspiring rags-to-riches tale, and it’s at this precise moment that we realize that’s not what we want. We’ve seen that movie – many ways on many days.
This identity crisis brought-on by O. Russell tarnishes much of the movie’s charm. It makes Rudy and Trudy seem like selfish flakes, and Terry seem like a self-absorbed tragedy. It de-emphasizes the girl Joy once was, and drops us into the deep, cold, water of the woman she has turned into. It wakes us up from the dream, and paints the dreamer as just one more person who did good…which is nice, but not all that interesting.
As JOY comes to a conclusion, an unexpected snow slowly begins to fall around our heroine. It’s as if the film felt guilty for pulling us out of that snow globe and wants to give us one last reminder. To complete the effect, the soundtrack swells, the flurries swirl, and that feeling of everything being perfect tickles the back of our neck. But right around the time the film illustrates the phoniness of the snow, we realize the phoniness of the gesture. The film wasn’t interested in showing us something special, just something it thought would make us happy.
It doesn’t make us happy, not even a little bit. Instead, it leaves us thinking about what most snow globes bought in crummy gift shops usually are:
Cheap reminders of somewhere very real in this world.