Joy begins with a blitz of various elements. It opens with a title card that claims that the movie is inspired by the true stories of daring women, with one in particular. It then moves on to a scene that turns out to be a confrontation that takes place in a soap opera. It then moves on to the main story, accompanied by the narration of the main character’s grandmother. Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) is first introduced as a child with big dreams and a knack for making things with her hands. Fast-forward to adulthood, and Joy is struggling to keep herself afloat amongst the various problems that her family brings her.
Her ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez) is living in the basement of the house, still trying to find success as a singer. Her mother (Virginia Madsen) spends all day in bed watching soaps. Her father (Robert De Niro) has just been dumped on her after his second marriage falls apart. Joy struggles to balance work with taking care of her kids and dealing with the various conflicts around the home. She then decides that she’s had enough of this dead-end life, and risks everything on an invention. She invents a self-wringing mop that could be her ticket out of all her problems. But the path to success is littered with obstacles, and there are times where it feels like even her own family doesn’t want Joy to succeed.
Joy is a movie that never seems to hit its stride. Or at least, it doesn’t really know what its stride is supposed to be. It tries many things, its opening minutes already a burst of possibly interesting ideas: the stilted, glamorous unreality presented in soap operas, charming voiceover narration, and more than a handful of subplots for the many characters in this film. But the film never really commits to any of them, and it feels like it’s drifting aimless through various, disconnected portion of this one person’s life. Joy feels like a first draft, the movie bursting at the seams with fun ideas but totally incoherent.
The movie is really good at depicting the mess that overwhelms the main character, but lacks the follow through to turn that mess into something more. It sets up a lot of problems but hardly resolves any. This would not be a problem if the movie exhibited a deeper understand of the character in the middle of this mess, but it doesn’t delve too much into who she really is. Joy stands as a strange, abstract figure in this movie, the film weirdly more interested in all the stuff surrounding her. Joy gets to solve everything, but it’s tough to tell how or why. There comes a point when the film, struggling to bring things to a thematic close, seems to just have another character awkwardly spell out all the woes the main character is facing. Then the film basically stumbles into a resolution.
Taken in isolation, a lot of bits in this movie are pretty entertaining. It does feel like the film could any of its component parts and expand them into their own individual features. But as it stands, it all feels a little disjointed. To its credit, the film is kind of gripping in construction, in spite of a few technical glitches in the camera work. And the performances always keep things watchable. Jennifer Lawrence is probably a decade too young for this role, but the actress is always fun to watch. The cast as a whole is a treat, even if the material is strictly two-dimensional.
Joy is deeply unsatisfying. It just feels too messy, too undercooked. It is a character sketch at best, a first run at adapting the life of a remarkable woman into film. But it hasn’t been developed into something cohesive yet. The film is certainly not without its pleasures, the sheer personality of its director and its cast ensuring that there’s something worth seeing in there. But as a whole, it just feels like one big disappointing mess.