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December 25, 2015

In what seems to be a running theme with this year’s Christmas releases, there’s certainly a great story behind the inventor of the Miracle Mop and early QVC star Joy Mangano, but unfortunately Joy isn’t it. And I say this having liked the last two collaborations between writer/director David O. Russell and stars Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper.

At least the story is somewhat accurate. Joy (Lawrence) was always a creatively-minded young woman. As a teenager, she came up with an idea for a fluorescent safety flea collar for pets, only to see Hartz Mountain release the product soon after. But then, as it does, life happened. She married the wrong guy, Tony (Édgar Ramírez), and had kids before getting divorced.

Contrary to the movie, though, she did graduate from Pace University, majoring in business administration no less. That does tend to fly in the face of the movie’s narrative, which has her half-sister Peggy (Elizabeth Röhm) saying that Joy has no experience running a business.

I can’t speak either way to Joy’s full house when she invented the Miracle Mop. To hear the movie tell it, she was supporting her soap-opera-addicted mother (Virginia Madsen), who barely left her bedroom, and her encouraging grandma Mimi (Diane Ladd), as well as letting her ex-husband live in the basement. And that’s before her father (Robert De Niro) wants to move back in too. It does seem more like the setup to a sitcom than anything else, though.

Whatever the truth of it, Joy did come up with the first self-wringing “Miracle Mop”, complete with 300 feet of continuous cotton fiber on a head that can be removed and thrown into the washing machine for cleaning. I admit, it doesn’t roll off the tongue quite so easily as “Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle BB gun with a compass in the stock and a thing which tells time”, but the way Joy repeats the elements of this pitch over and over throughout the movie does evoke her latent abilities as a natural saleswoman. And though Russell focuses only on the mop, she has a whole range of other inventions to her credit, and she’s acted as the spokeswoman for many more, placing her in the same rank as legends like Billy Mays and Ron Popeil.

But wait, there’s more. It’s not enough to invent the mop and get it made, Joy also has to sell the thing, which is harder than it might seem. Luckily, this all all happened a few years after the launch of QVC as a competitor against the Home Shopping Network. Joy manages to win the confidence of a QVC executive (Bradley Cooper) not only to sell her mop on the network, but to let her make the on-air pitch herself.

And then there’s a whole other conflict with the fabrication company, and a legal dispute over a potentially conflicting patent. None of which may have any real basis in fact, though they’re great ways for the character to show her grit and determination.

For all the ways it plays very fast and extremely loose with the truth of Joy Mangano’s actual life, Joy at least does a good job here, showing a woman succeeding as an entrepreneur despite the deck being stacked against her in so many ways. Even casting Lawrence — younger by a decade than Joy was at this point — plays into this, accentuating our sense that she’s too young and inexperienced for these obstacles, only for J-Law’s take-no-crap attitude to take over as she fights back.

It’s a laudable goal, but the execution is wildly erratic. Nonlinear storytelling is old-hat by now, and yet it’s still jarring when we dive into an extended flashback during a conversation between Joy and her friend Jackie (Dascha Polanco). And then there’s the detritus; before I stuck to the storylines that relate to the mop, but I left out all the other fly-away stuff.

For example: the fact that Joy’s mother is so comically fearful, sure, I see how that shows an influence she had to fight against. And I can see how a leaky pipe under her floor that requires the attention of a Haitian plumber (Jimmy Jean-Louis) highlights both this fear and Joy’s handiness. But the ensuing romance between Joy’s mother and the plumber seems purely absurdist, and ties into nothing else. Russell is so enamored of this sort of color that he daubs it all over his canvas, never seeming to care how it interacts with the underlying composition.

In the long run, all these distractions do some real damage to an otherwise well-intentioned story. It’s a shame, but maybe it was bound to happen sooner or later that this particular team would push itself a bit too far.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

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