Hollow heart 

Half-baked characters undercut Joy

Joy is not a very good movie, but the message is so salient and relevant that in spite of itself, it may manage to move audiences anyway. Jennifer Lawrence plays the titular role in a story loosely based on the real life entrepreneur and inventor Joy Mangano. She's the lady behind iconic products such as "The Miracle Mop" and "Huggable Hangers," but as we will see in exaggerated detail, the road to success was not paved in gold.

We first meet Joy in the Long Island home she shares with far too many people in the late 1980s. Her mother (Virginia Madsen) has spent the last eight years propped up in a living room-turned-bedroom watching soap operas and acting like a spoiled child, generally. Joy's been divorced from Tony (edgar Ramírez) for two years but he still lives in the basement, where he practices his lounge singing. They've got two kids together, a boy and a girl, although the boy has been all but edged out of the film to make room for the mother-daughter dynamic. (The movie isn't slavishly tied to biographical details, why not just cut out the little boy? The short answer: bad filmmaking.)

Joy's scrambling to get out the door to her job as an airline reservation specialist and all-around hero to a thankless family when hilarity comes knocking in the form of her father, played by Robert DeNiro. His latest girlfriend has had enough of him and now Dad wants to live in the basement along with the ex-in-law with whom he doesn't get along.

This is Lawrence's third collaboration with director David O. Russell, after 2013's American Hustle and her Oscar-winning role in 2011's Silver Lining's Playbook. Joy is just the kind of setup we're used to seeing in a Russell picture: a grown-up family that's dysfunctional but loves each other. And it's still charming, but barely.

click to enlarge “As long as you don’t ruin my ‘Twin Peaks’ videos everything will be fine.”
  • “As long as you don’t ruin my ‘Twin Peaks’ videos everything will be fine.”

In Silver Lining's Playbook, the supporting characters have their own story arcs and motivations, and it makes the family unit feel real. In that film, when DeNiro sits at his son's bedside and clumsily tries to tell him how important it is that they hang out more and talk about the Philadelphia Eagles, we're getting an intimate look at a difficult man's vulnerability, and it means everything. In Joy, DeNiro's big turn comes when, after what looks to be the failure of her business, he flippantly tells his daughter that it's his fault for ever making her believe she could succeed. The movie is filled with moments like these. Bradley Cooper in a barely there role agrees to sell Joy's product, then tells her to give up, then gives her another shot when she whispers menacingly. (The way she won't take no for an answer, I tell ya. This girl is the Steve Jobs of mopping.) Repeatedly people tell her she's not good enough and that getting swindled in business is the normal course of events. At a pivotal moment on the cusp of the third act, Lawrence gives herself a hard look in the mirror and then gives herself a haircut, and it's all uphill from there. They might have also considered calling this film "The Magic Haircut."

The film's message is on point. I don't doubt at all that men would unfairly inflate a businesswoman's costs or try to steal her patented designs. It's just hard to believe in the moment of the scene that anyone could do that to Jennifer Lawrence. For this role, she may just have too much charisma for her own good.

Joy continues at the Carmike 12.

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