The joy of ‘Joy’

What a chaotic, inspiring mess of a movie. I just loved it. I haven’t seen a movie I enjoyed this much since “Moonstruck.” If I’d listened to the reviewers, I wouldn’t have seen it.

This movie is a machine with lots of moving parts: Joy is constantly coming up with half-wild, half-practical ideas, only to be thwarted by some bully who stands in her path—sometimes it’s a man, but not always. The problem isn’t that the scenario is unrealistic: Everything that happens in Joy is believable. But Russell fails in the subtlety department. You can hear the gears grinding away every minute: This story, of the woman who invented the Miracle Mop, Huggable Hangers, and lots of other awesome stuff, will inspire you or else. What is it about inspiration that so often fails to inspire? Russell closes the movie with a scene that saps all the juice from his lead character: At her best, Joy is a hustler and a dreamer in equal measure. By the end, she’s just a role model—her success has calcified into a kind of passive grandeur, and Lawrence doesn’t know how to play that.

But that’s to her credit. Lawrence is better at playing a fighter than a great lady worthy of our admiration—she’s an action verb in action. When we see her trying to hawk her newly invented mop in a K-Mart parking lot—some ladies stop to look but eventually move on, and that’s before the cops show up—desperation clashes with determination. Lawrence is wonderful at playing both: Her smallish, piercing eyes can show guardedness or heart-stopping openness, and she can shift from one to the other imperceptibly. It’s no surprise when Joy becomes a home-shopping success—we always knew she had that potential, kickboxing its way out. No wonder the phones start ringing off the hook. In the end, Joy is more slender and inconsequential than Russell probably intends it to be—it wears its ideas rather than embodying them. But Lawrence keeps the channels of communication open, every minute, with the audience. Joy is proof that she can sell us anything. Operators are standing by.

It spoke to me on so many levels, especially about being an intelligent working-class woman with a head full of ideas and few options to realize them.

And it sure seemed as though the people who packed every seat in the theater liked it, too.