Next to Christianity and Manifest Destiny, the other great religion of the United States has always been the American Dream, the idea that anyone from any background can come to America and make it big.
It’s empowered generations of newly-arrived migrants, and even people who have been in the country for decades, to believe that with the right of gumption, talent and a lucky break just when you need it, that all your dreams can come true.
It’s a system of belief that has taken firm root in Mimi (Diane Ladd), the grandmother of Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence in brilliant form), the real-life inventor of the Miracle Mop and Huggable Hangers, who, in David O. Russell’s latest film Joy, encourages her granddaughter to take her childhood penchant for design and do something remarkable with it.
While Joy’s newly-divorced mother, Terry (Virginia Madsen) retreats to her bedroom and from life, spending her days watching soap operas, Mimi instils in her talented granddaughter the idea that not only is the American Dream real and achievable but that Joy will be the one who changes the fortunes of her Italian-American family.
Joy pays attention, of course, but as it so often does, life gets in the way, and Joy finds her dreams coming hard against the reality of forgoing college to help her father Rudy (Robert De Niro) run his smalltown engineering company, keeping an eye on her reclusive mother and working a customer service for Eastern Airlines to pay the bills.
It isn’t quite what Mimi or Joy had in mind but weighed down by thwarted ambitions and put-aside dreams, is pretty much all the optimistic young dreamer, who spends her days refereeing a polyglot household made up of her dad, mum, granddaughter, two kids and ex-husband Tony (Édgar Ramírez) has going for her.
That is until one challenging obstacle too many pushes Joy not to despair, a reasonable option given how little her life has lived up to Mimi’s hype, but to create a prototype for the Miracle Mop which goes to help the aspiring entrepreneur found the business empire she had long given up on having.
There are obstacles aplenty of course, including some from within her own family – her father and his eccentric rich girlfriend Trudy (Isabella Rossellini in fine form) are often more hindrance than help despite their financial backing while sniping half-sister Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm) harbours more delusions of grandeur than actual ability – but with her own self-belief and the support of best friend Jackie (Dascha Pelanco), Tony, who’s a better friend than a husband, and her boss at QVC Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), Joy manages to turn her long-delayed American Dream into a reality.
What makes Joy far more than just another inspiring tale of the American Dream made flesh-and-blood is that David O. Russell, who has shown more than a touch of Wes Anderson-esque lightly surreal flourishes in the past – American Hustle, which also starred Lawrence and Cooper, was pleasingly rife with them to great effect – invests the story with some brilliantly but subtlely-realised quirky flourishes that elevate rather than trivialise the central narrative.
Joy’s family circumstances for instance, while trying and all too real, are given a sense of heightened reality that helps you to understand what she was up against from her own four walls when she belatedly try to realise her dreams.
It wasn’t simply opposition or hindrance from without that beset her – although there is plenty of that including an unscrupulous parts manufacturer who works hard to steal Joy’s patents – but inadvertent sabotaging from within.
None of the family members deliberately set out to make life difficult for Joy and all love her in their own haphazard, poorly-articulated way, but Russell’s pitch-perfect comic exaggerations bring home just how much Joy had to be her own champion in order to succeed.
And yes, they’re just damn funny into the bargain.
Of course, adding some seditiously surreal touches to this dramatic tale also works against Joy to a small degree, often obscuring the audience’s ability to emotionally connect fully with the characters, and to fully invest in the protagonist’s rags-to-riches story.
It isn’t to a debilitating, deal-breaking degree, and when Joy triumphs at the end as you know she must in a film of this ilk you feel all the triumphant vindication that the tenacious housewife does, but it does lessen the sense that we’re witnessing someone take on the odds, and with a few steps backward here and there, and win.
Quite impressively so in fact.
Lawrence plays Joy perfectly – vulnerable when she needs to be, tough otherwise but always likeable and powered not by naked greed and ambition but by a simple yet profound need to make something of the all the promise she displayed as a child and which Mimi believed would ultimately take her, and the family, to greatness.
Thanks to Lawrence’s straight down the line approach, powered by a nicely-paced screenplay by Annie Mumolo and David O. Russell, the more comedic elements work that much more effectively and the story is elevated from a simple tale of triumph against the odds to a real, all-too-human portrayal of both life’s setbacks and rewards, often doled up in unequal measure.
Joy isn’t a perfect movie but it still manages to pack an entertaining and inspiring punch, reminding us in the process that dreaming big isn’t just for fairy tales or political stump speeches but can actually happen in real life to life-changing effect.