Kernel Rating (out of 5):
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 124 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 13+. Some sexually themed jokes, some cursing, a womanizing character whose cruelty toward women is played for laughs, a few kisses, and lots of sexist talk about women, including disparaging someone for being a “housewife.” Overall, the film is supposedly “inspired by true stories of daring women,” but it flirts a lot with sexism without fully dismantling the stereotypes it sets forward.
Jennifer Lawrence stars as ‘Joy,’ a woman struggling to realize her own ambitions while taking care of her chaotic, judgmental, undermining family. Her performance is strong, but the movie is tonally disjointed, ultimately more patronizing than inspiring.
By Roxana Hadadi
Jennifer Lawrence has a spectacular gift for veering between comedy and gravity almost seamlessly, and that skill has made her perfect for director David O. Russell’s particular kind of cinematic chaos. But while Lawrence is characteristically excellent in “Joy,” her performance is overshadowed by Russell’s ultimately patronizing message.
Lawrence recently mentioned in an interview that Russell, while filming “Joy,” would sometimes refer to her with male pronouns—like “he” and “him”—and that’s a spectacularly strange reveal when the film initially presents itself as some kind of feminist opus. In its opening seconds, the fictionalized biography of inventor and businesswoman Joy Mangano says it is “inspired by true stories of daring women, one in particular,” but from that moment on, things get increasingly undermining.
It’s like Russell has these typical definitions of what makes Joy a “strong woman,” and he milks them for all their worth without taking the time to develop her as anything other than “mother,” “entrepreneur,” or “matriarch.” Her interests and aspirations center only around her family, even when they’re absolutely awful to her, and that narrow focus is inherently limiting. “Joy” isn’t really a movie about building up women as much as it is about tearing them down and justifying sexism as character building, and that makes for an exhausting viewing experience.
“Joy” focuses on its titular character (Lawrence, of “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2”), who is adored by her grandmother—convinced she will grow up to make “wonderful creations for all the world”—but her early intelligence and ingenuity take a couple of major hits.
First is her parents’ divorce, which severs her once-close relationship with her half-sister Peggy (Elisabeth Rohm); unmoors her mother Terry (Virginia Madsen, of “Red Riding Hood”) from reality, sending her spiraling into an obsession with soap operas; and separates her from her womanizing, mechanic father Rudy (Robert De Niro, of “The Intern”).
Then there’s a swift marriage to the aspiring singer Tony (Édgar Ramírez, of “Wrath of the Titans”), two kids, and a divorce. And so with children to support, a mortgage, and various family members living in her house, Joy puts aside her dreams of becoming an inventor to work at the local airport and help her father with his business’s accounting.
She is “Joy the doer,” but her constant nightmares about her lost potential are plaguing her. “I don’t want to end up like my family,” she admits, and that fear eventually helps lead to a major breakthrough: the design for a mop that wrings itself and is machine-washable. After borrowing major money from her father’s new girlfriend, Joy sets out to get the mop made, market it, and sell it—but a host of problems, from people trying to overcharge her to her own family attempting control of the company, keep arising, one after another, threatening what Joy has worked so hard to build. Whether and how she perseveres make “Joy” who she is.
Or, at least that’s what we’re supposed to glean from the uneven script, which vacillates between placing Joy on a pedestal and throwing her in the garbage, putting her through every indignity possible to makes its point that “Women can be strong, too!” The unsubtlety of that message is condescending, and the movie does so little to make Joy unique that’s difficult to get who she is, aside from a character being played by Jennifer Lawrence. The only moments of development or self-awareness seem to come when Joy is going full mobster by threatening relatives or describing her fashion sense—“I wear a blouse and I wear pants, that’s who I am,” she says to QVC executive Neil (Bradley Cooper, of “Aloha”)—and those are only enlivened by Lawrence, whose performance is, as always, committed and enjoyable.
But Lawrence is a live wire of an actress, and Joy is supposed to be a live wire of a character, and yet they don’t gel together in an enjoyable way. Russell has tried to do a good thing here, but in “Joy,” his homage to women ends up being more like an attack.
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