I enjoyed American Hustle, David O. Russell’s arch Scorsese pastiche, but perhaps it was silly of me to expect anything other than a rudderless misfire as a follow-up from this divisive and infuriatingly erratic filmmaker. A dramatisation of the early life of self-wringing Miracle Mop designer and entrepreneur Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence), Joy has moments of promise but Russell repeatedly fails to capitalise on them, with his screenplay perplexingly skirting over some potentially interesting material by shoe-horning it all into the final five minutes. Its tonal inconsistencies are too jarring to embrace, and I suppose his messy jumbles of awkwardly-matched genres, something of a signature style, are bound to backfire every now and again. Russell’s own lack of focus is a bigger problem; he picks up ideas and themes in this film before repeatedly dropping them like a hyperactive child in a room full of toys. It starts when he plays around with soap operas, but that doesn’t really go anywhere and eventually he gives up. He brings firearms into the story when there’s really no reason for them to appear at all (maybe he just wanted to see what Lawrence looks like when she’s cocking and firing a shotgun). He starts to delve into the plasticky realm of TV home shopping but loses interest fifteen minutes later. All the while Russell tries to cram as many pieces of music into the soundtrack as possible. It’s a complete hotchpotch of ill-matched bits and pieces, and there’s nothing consistent across the entire story except for Joy’s can-do attitude and her family’s dyfunction: Mangano is a plucky single mom coping with the behaviour of her mother Terri and father Rudy (Virginia Madsen, Robert De Niro), who are separated and can’t seem to spend longer than 30 seconds in a room together before plates start to fly; her own marriage to Tony (Édgar Ramírez) has ended even though they’re still on friendly terms, while her relationship with half-sister Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm) is bad. Still, the Manganos’ differences are generally set aside so they can all support the inventive and practical Joy as she steps out into the brave world of business; she’s also helped along by Isabella Rossellini’s unconvinced benefactor and Bradley Cooper’s QVC bigwig. And so she becomes a success! Then she isn’t and it looks like the rest of her life will be awful! Then she’s a success again! And it’s Christmas!
No doubt Russell enjoyed the challenge of making a story about the invention of a mop interesting, and to his credit there are passages here that work – Joy’s make-or-break meeting with the home shopping network after a breathless tour of their studio is a mid-way high point, while it’d be churlish to deny there’s pleasure to be had as she sticks it to the arrogant businessmen who steal her idea (though I’m not sure a cartoon Texan’s implication that he could be a contract killer was strictly necessary). However the director’s decision to leave out certain elements of Mangano’s story is mystifying. As far as Russell is concerned, all Joy wants in life is a big house, which is understandable enough, but when she gets it the writer-director isn’t interested in delving any further. We learn during the film’s truly terrible epilogue that Peggy and Rudy later sued her for ownership of the business, but it’s only mentioned in passing; for a film that foregrounds the Manganos’ dysfunctionality this episode is something that ought to be a key part of the story. I suppose if you’re that interested in Joy’s later life you can always Google her afterwards, or read the relevant Wikipedia page, but I’m surprised that Russell is so ambivalent towards this rather surprising turn of events. It makes me question whether he cares about Joy Mangano at all, or whether he just fell in love with the pranksterish idea of making a major Hollywood picture about a mop. When the mop becomes a big seller there’s nothing left to interest the writer, and he doesn’t care about his main character enough to go any deeper; after the rather dreary transformation from plucky inventor to successful businesswoman Joy is simply left sitting behind a big desk as an endless parade of people are granted five minutes in her presence. Nevertheless Russell gets a solid performance out of Lawrence, who has been flattered by her recent Oscar nomination. The other actors are short-changed by underwritten parts; Diane Ladd, playing Joy’s grandmother, is the best of the rest.
Directed by: David O. Russell.
Written by: David O. Russell.
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Édgar Ramírez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Bradley Cooper, Isabella Rossellini, Dascha Polanco, Elisabeth Röhm.
Cinematography: Linus Sandgren.
Editing: Alan Baumgarten, Jay Cassidy, Tom Cross, Christopher Tellefsen.
Music: West Dylan Thordson, David Campbell, Various.
Running Time: 124 minutes.