Joy, David O. Russell’s biographical drama about inventor and entrepreneur Joy Mangano, is a love letter to neoliberal, “lean in” feminism. Like a motivational speech by Tony Robbins, Joy makes the case for the American dream. If you believe in yourself, if you ignore the naysayers, if you build a better mousetrap, you too can become rich and famous. Joy is a rare example of a mainstream Hollywood movie that wears its conservative politics on its sleeve.
I loved every minute of it.
David O. Russell makes interesting casting choices. I’m not really sure if any of the actors brought their A game to Joy, but none of them really had to. They work together as an ensemble. Robert DeNiro has a minor role as Joy’s father. Isabella Rossellini is quietly believable as a moneyed, eccentric and authoritarian Italian immigrant, De Niro’s girlfriend and Joy’s first investor. I dislike Bradley Cooper for his work in American Sniper, especially for his willingness to shill for Clint Eastwood’s fascist politics, but there’s no question he’s a good actor. He perfectly nails the role of Neil Walker, a charismatic cable TV executive, a charming, but fundamentally shallow man who convinces Joy to take out a second mortgage on her house, then coldly drops her the next day when her product doesn’t sell. While Russell’s decision to cast Jennifer Lawrence, a 25-year-old WASP from Kentucky as Joy Mangano, a 33-year-old Italian American from Long Guyland, may raise a few eyebrows, it makes the film work. We want to see Lawrence grow into the role of a 30-something as much as we want to see Joy grow into the role of a successful capitalist and entrepreneur. Lawrence’s likability makes us root for her. Her youth and vulnerability lend an attractive, and even a glamorous air to the fundamentally drab idea of selling a plastic mop on the QVC network.
The film opens with Joy, a divorced mother of two, working at a low-paying job as a ticket clerk for Eastern Airlines, entombed inside her extended, dysfunctional family, watching the early promise of her life disappear into the rear view mirror of her 20s. A nagging sense that you haven’t lived up to your potential is something we all feel in our early 30s. In Joy’s case the gulf between what she thinks she can be and where she’s actually ended up is the size of the Grand Canyon. She was the valedictorian of her high school. She was supposed to go to college. She invented a no-choke dog collar she failed to patent and later saw being sold by a major pet supply company. She lives in a ramshackle old house in Quogue with her mother, a depressed woman played by Virginia Madsen who spends all day watching soap operas on TV, her two kids and her ex-husband, who still lives in the basement two years after the divorce. A crisis is reached when Joy is fired from her job as a ticket agent. I’m not sure anybody would fire someone who looks as good in an Eastern Airlines outfit as Jennifer Lawrence does unless she’s a very difficult employee, and probably not even then, so you have to suspend your disbelief. Things get worse even when her father Rudy gets dumped by his live in girlfriend, and moves back “home.” Before long, Joy realizes that she’s not only the mother of her two children, but also of her father, her mother, and her ex-husband. Her only real emotional support, her grandmother, convinces her never to give up her dreams.
Joy gets a break when Rudy starts dating Trudy, a wealthy Italian played by Isabella Rossellini. Trudy is a difficult, eccentric person – life everybody else in the movie – but she has one thing every aspiring entrepreneur needs, access to capital. After Joy designs a plastic, self-wringing mop, and convinces Trudy to put up the money to manufacture a small initial run of the prototype, Joy runs into her next problem. Where to sell it? The local hardware store isn’t interested. Kmart doesn’t want it. It’s too good. People won’t have to buy a new mop every few months. When she tries to set up her own kiosk in the parking-lot of a local mini-mall, she gets arrested. David O. Russell demonstrates his understanding of the culturally liberal side of the American Dream with the characters of Tony, Joy’s ex-husband, and Jackie, Joy’s best friend from high-school. They’re both Hispanic. They both support Joy’s dreams in a way nobody in her family but her grandmother does. It’s Tony – a would be singer who we initially think is a bit of a loser – who suggests that Joy should try the QVC network, a home-shopping network set up by Barry Diller in 1986, and made feasible by cable television and the newly expanded availability of credit cards.
Neil Walker, the head of the QVC network, is as charming, volatile and shallow as capitalism itself. He’s initially skeptical, but Joy not only manages to convince him to sell her mop. She convinces him to convince her to manufacture a run of 50,000. It’s only later, to her horror, that she learns he had never really been behind her idea at all. She hadn’t sold him on her mop. He had sold her on QVC. The moment when Joy realizes that all her effort has been for nothing, that she got one 30 second spot on Walker’s network in exchange for $200,000 dollars, is the kind of gut punch to your dreams that few movies ever manage to dramatize so well. Suddenly Joy is all alone, nothing but an unemployed, divorced mother of two children who had put up her family’s house for the frivolous delusion that she could be a successful capitalist.This is also the moment that Russell sells us on capitalism. Joy is too strong, too motivated, to go down without a fight, and she becomes a surrogate for us all, for her husband, the would-be singer, for the failed writer, the failed artist, the athlete who never made it to the big leagues, the politician who loses an election, the unrequited lover. Joy the high-school valedictorian has been broken. Joy the entrepreneur, the lean in feminist, the artist of the plastic mop and the no choke dollar, has risen Phoenix like from the ashes. Capitalism destroys the individual. Capitalism also makes it possible for the individual to be reborn.
Joy ends with Joy, older and successful beyond her wildest dreams, give a break to a young mother who reminds her of herself. Who needs socialism when you’ve got benevolent, socially progressive millionaires like Joy Mangano running the show? Why would you give up on the American dream when it looks like Jennifer Lawrence in a white Oxford shirt, long blond hair, and tight black slacks hugging her long legs? God bless the United States of America even if, in the end, it’s just a self-wringing plastic mop on sales for 20 dollars on the QVC network.