Over the weekend, Victor Frankenstein screenwriter Max Landis caused a mini Twitter flurry by calling Daisy Ridley’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens character Rey a “Mary Sue,” a fan fiction term for an idealized, overly capable original character inserted into an existing universe. In other words, according to Landis, Rey is fan wish fulfillment, too instantly liked and too good at everything too quickly — a strange complaint about a franchise consisting of two trilogies about two dudes who were good at everything because of the powers they were born with.
But Rey’s a woman.
The blinkered idea that when female characters are capable and lead a story it’s pandering is one that’s been lobbed at other movies this year as well, particularly Mad Max: Fury Road for its introduction of Charlize Theron’s fabulous Imperator Furiosa. It’s the howl of a small fraction of moviegoers outraged to realize they are no longer the only demographic Hollywood’s catering to… except then something like Joy comes out and you wish all those grumblers cared as much about the latest David O. Russell drama as they do major franchises. Because Joy is what pandering actually looks like, and it’s not pretty.
Well, it is pretty, because it stars Jennifer Lawrence, Russell’s leading lady of choice for three movies now, and because it’s shot by cinematographer Linus Sandgren, who makes the whole thing look like a slightly faded home movie from some undetermined moment in the past. Lawrence will always be fun to watch, even when she’s as miscast as she is here as Joy, a divorced mother of two who invents an innovative mop that’s sold on the Home Shopping Network.
The actor tamps down her unruly charisma to play a woman who’s struggling to support not just her children but her musician ex (Édgar Ramírez), her divorced parents (Robert De Niro and Virginia Madsen), and her beloved grandmother (Diane Ladd). But it doesn’t matter. Despite how capable Lawrence is, the 25-year-old still can’t convincingly pull off the soul-deep exhaustion and panic of a woman who’s spent more than a decade and a half treating her own needs as secondary to those of the people she’s taking care of. When Ladd’s Mimi tells Joy, “You don’t exactly have your whole life ahead of you, but you still have a good portion of it,” it’s eye-rolling, because plenty of people who are Lawrence’s age are still coming around to the idea that you have to buy toilet paper.
Lawrence has been too young for every Russell role she’s had, but Joy is the first movie in which that feels like an affront — not just because she’s a decade younger than the real Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano, but because she seems cast in order to make the story of a single-mom-and-housewife-turned-entrepreneur into a more generic girl power tale. Mangano is an executive producer on the film, but Joy’s title card is even weirdly vague about how much of what follows is her story: “Inspired by true stories of powerful women and one in particular,” it reads.
It’s ironic that a movie about a woman who has credit stolen for her work by a collection of condescending men would play coy about being based on someone’s real life — that it’s somehow not Mangano’s story but that of all women. But a lot of Joy’s uplift is phony in the same way, built on every other character being monstrous or foolish. The film, which Russell wrote with a story credit for Bridesmaids scribe Annie Mumolo, portrays Joy’s family as a collection of ungrateful parasites and undermining harpies, worse, somehow, than the family in The Fighter.
Joy’s father makes her cry at her wedding and favors the hostile sister (Elisabeth Röhm) who’s always insulting her. Joy is also pressured into taking bad advice from her financier, her father’s girlfriend (Isabella Rossellini), then blamed for it. The head of HSN (Bradley Cooper) lets a man who’s never held a mop in his life first demonstrate her product. Joy’s business partners attempt to steal her ideas, then sneer in her face when she protests.
Throughout Joy’s lurching story, the title character repeatedly shows moxie against cartoonish adversity, sometimes with the help of her bestie (an underused Orange Is the New Black star Dascha Polanco), providing moments of satisfaction that don’t need the context of the movie to work. They’re actually better without it, because the context is such a cardboard representation of what it’s like to be underestimated, talked down to, misunderstood, and dismissed.
Sure, it’s a pleasure to watch Lawrence take her rage out at the neighboring shooting range or tell Rossellini’s Trudy about how ready she is to be ruthless in business. But those scenes work better in the trailer or as a selection of convenient GIFs than they do as part of a movie that doesn’t just do a disservice to its subject and its lead, but to the women it attempts to speak for.
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