The biggest problem with ‘Joy’ is its own director

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“Joy” had scenes. And while some of them were very good, I’m not sure that it’s actually a movie, though.

“Joy,” the latest film by David O. Russell is a biopic that proudly displays a big asterisk on the “bio” part. It tells the true story of Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence), an overworked, single mother who created the Miracle Mop and became a millionaire.

Now this is the kind of story David O. Russell loves: somebody who is constantly held down by their insane mess of a family. And that is what ultimately hurts Russell at certain points: he is constantly standing in his own shadow.

By this point, David O. Russell has earned a good reputation in Hollywood after years in creative jail. In 2010, “The Fighter,” about a boxer being held down by his crazy family, was his well deserved comeback. He followed it up with the equally fantastic “Silver Linings Playbook,” about yet another person trying to escape their demons. Between “American Hustle” and “Joy,” it feels like David O. Russell keeps trying to remake “Silver Linings Playbook” while forgetting everything that is so great about it.

People really don’t like “Joy.”

The reviews for “Joy” have been harsh. I am not saying that this film doesn’t deserve that scorn, but it feels like people might have been kinder to it had not come with the added baggage of the Russell/Lawrence team.

It isn’t a complete disaster.

“Joy” is partially saved by some phenomenal performances. Once again, Russell shows that he can bring out the best in Jennifer Lawrence. She has matured greatly as an actress. Sometimes, it seems like she is too young to play this role, but it works in her favor. She seems completely out of place as a woman who has to deal with her parents’ divorce while also sorting out her own. It also helps that she has a great scene partner in Bradley Cooper.

During one scene, she has to go on QVC and convince the world both that they should buy this mop, and that she is an ordinary woman from Long Island, and not a movie star. For a second there, I really did think that mop was the greatest thing in the world.

The film then loses track of everything, including the other characters.

This is why “Joy” can’t be “The Fighter,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” or even “Flirting With Disaster” (a great film from early in Russell’s career): it completely abandons every other character.

Russell is typically so skilled at fleshing out giant ensembles. Here, it just feels like every character is meant to service Joy and their internal lives don’t matter. Early on in the film, Joy’s father (Robert De Niro) is shown as a broken mess of a man. He ruins Joy’s wedding and joins a dating service for widows and widowers, even though he is neither. He is never given a moment of redemption, even though by the end his sins are completely absolved. Sure, this movie is called “Joy” but the story would have been much richer had those who helped Mangano achieve success actually been given her due.

And finally, the mop ends up not being that interesting.

After truly selling me that the Miracle Mop really was important, “Joy” lost me when it suddenly turns into a drama about patent law.

In the end, “Joy” feels like the product of complete creative control. Sometimes, that can be a good thing (see: “The Hateful Eight”). While “Joy” has its redeeming qualities, it feels like a good argument for directors actually reading the notes studio executives give them.