Joy Offers Little to Cheer About

Joy is an odd duck of a movie. It comes with impeccable credentials, yet when it’s over you’re left wondering why filmmaker David O. Russell thought this material was worthy of a feature film. It’s not that the story of Joy Mangano (never named, although she is credited as one of the executive producers) isn’t dramatic or unpredictable. But while it is crammed with incident and unusual characters, it doesn’t offer larger lessons or truths beyond platitudes: believe in yourself, don’t be easily discouraged, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Jennifer Lawrence brings her considerable star quality to the central role of a woman who’s struggling to get by, raising kids with no help or money to spare, an ex-husband who won’t move out of her basement, an agoraphobic mother who watches soap operas all day, a jealous stepsister, and a father whose love and support bend with the wind.

Then one day she comes upon an idea and puts herself forward as an entrepreneur. In most movies, this would be the pathway to a happy ending, but Joy still has many detours ahead for its plucky protagonist—and us in the audience.

It’s the high-caliber cast that keeps us watching: Lawrence is supported by Robert De Niro, Edgar Ramirez, Virginia Madsen, Elisabeth Rohm, and Isabella Rossellini. Their lives have no purpose, and their quirks and peccadilloes chip away at Joy’s sanity on a daily basis. Living with them is such a trial that somehow her ultimate success isn’t as satisfying as it ought to be. We’re just glad she survived at all. Bradley Cooper shines in a small but significant role, and Melissa Rivers contributes an amusing cameo as her late mother Joan.

Joy is never boring, but its meandering nature leaves us feeling curiously unmoved. In his determination to be unconventional, David O. Russell has jettisoned some of the building blocks that make a biopic work.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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February 2024