JOY. US, 2015. Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, Edgar Ramirez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Dascha Polanco, Elizabeth Rohm, Susan Lucci, Laura Wright, Ken Howard. Directed by David O. Russell. 124 minutes. Rated M (Infrequent coarse language).

Joy is a rather generic name for a film. We might expect experiences of joy and, by contrast, experiences of sadness. But Joy is the name of the central character, based on actual person, Joy Mangano. With her invention of the squeezing mop, the title of the film could have been Mop.

Audience expectation is high with Jennifer Lawrence in the central role. She had worked with the director, David O. Russell on The Silver Linings Playbook and won an Oscar for best actress. She also worked with him on American Hustle, a small role, striking and Oscar-nominated. Here she is the central character. She also works again with Bradley Cooper as she did in the previous Russell films as well in the period drama, Serena.


In fact, the film begins with sequences from a black and white, very stolidly photographed and performed, soap opera. The audience needs to keep this in mind as we watch because Russell is very serious with his American dream drama, with its touches of nightmares, contrasting with the soap operas. Indeed, the soap opera continues throughout the film, later developments in colour and more sophisticated filmmaking, constantly watched by Joy’s mother, Terry, Virginia Madsen, a recluse after her divorce, living in her room, dependent on her television program.


We see Joy as a child, with her half-sister, Peggy, friends but with a touch of rivalry. Their father, Rudi, who owns a repair business, is played by Robert De Niro.


The screenplay then cuts out a lot of information (later to be taken up in flashbacks) and we find Joy, married and divorced, a mother of two children, working for an airline, a mortgage on her house, living with her grandmother and her reclusive mother, not many prospects in life. As she meets with her best friend, Marie, Dascha Polanco, we are treated to flashbacks about Joy, going to a bar, meeting the singer, Tony (Edgar Ramirez), then bonding, marriage, the years going past, two children, his not getting a satisfactory job, his living in the basement, Joy and Tony still good friends. And then her father wants somewhere to live and is put in the basement where he fights continually with Tony.


There is a development when Rudi makes an online dating connection, a widow called Trudi (Isabella Rossellini) and they hit it off. It is on a yacht cruise where they are forbidden to drink red wine which could stain the teak wood work, where they do drink it, spill it, and Joy mops it up, cutting her hand – but, having invented things in her childhood, gets her thinking about a mop that one needn’t have to handle but could be squeezed by an inner mechanism.


Audiences may be surprised that they are spending so much time in the development of the Mop, the production of the Mop, money loans, promotion of the Mop.


Trudi does give a loan although she has fixed ideas about business. When Joy tries to demonstrate the use of the mop outside K Mart, she is arrested. The local parish priest has gathered together a number of Hispanic women who need work and they combine to become the company who makes the Mops.


Tony has a connection with a producer at a television shopping channel, Neil, played by Bradley Cooper. By insistence and force of personality, Joy demonstrates the mop for Neil, persuades him to let her advertise – with the screenplay giving us an idea about the origins of these channels, the developments, the revolving stages, the process of filming, the number of phone calls, the business success.


The American dream becomes a nightmare when the salesman spoils the whole demonstration – with Joy then determined to do it herself, defying the advice for make-up and clothes, freezing at first, and then warming to the situation and the sales rocket.


That would be too good to be true. As has been said, the American dream has nightmares and there are all kinds of clashes, especially with her sister Peggy who wants to control things with the support of her father, and issues of bankruptcy especially with Trudi, confrontation of the factory owners in California, the discovery of fraud from Texas – and Joy, studying the documentation, confronting the enemy, succeeds and her dreams come true.


Whether they had been put off by a such a study of Mops, a number of commentators decided that the film was rather trivial and silly – but, it seems they have underestimated Jennifer Lawrence’s screen presence and performance, the strength of the supporting cast, the value of the American dream for someone who might have been very ordinary and unachieving American housewife.

Fox.  Released December 26th.

Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

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