Joy review: “a gorgeous but nevertheless gritty fairy tale”

Jennifer Lawrence is an inspiration as the inventor of the Miracle Mop in a true-life feel-good fable from director David O Russell

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★★★★

‘I don’t need a prince,’ the young Joy Mangano tells her incredulous half-sister in writer/director David O Russell’s fizzily feminist latest, based on a story by Russell and Bridesmaids’ screenwriter Annie Mumolo.

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As seen through her grandmother’s eyes and imbued with every inch of her adoration, pride and protectiveness, Mangano’s life is transformed into a gorgeous but nevertheless gritty fairy tale, one that features a gutsy protagonist battling towering adversity and even outright villainy and that promises a highly unconventional happy-ever-after.

Grandma Mimi (Diane Ladd) tells the basically true – albeit heavily modified – tale of the prolific American inventor, best known for creating the phenomenally successful, self-wringing Miracle Mop. It’s the third collaboration between the serially Academy Award-nominated Russell and still-soaring Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence. Despite the graceful, quietly showy camera work, quirky touches (a single, wildly melodramatic soap seems to be permanently on television) and overriding feel of the fantastical, Mangano is presented as a woman of credible and complex character – the “only unanxious presence” in a chaotic brood of borderline grotesques. 

When we’re introduced to the 20-something Joy (Lawrence), it’s immediately obvious that her life thus far has been a disappointment. Challenges rain down upon this thoroughly practical person as she tries to get herself off to her job at an airline and her kids off to school. Her ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez) lives in her basement and her agoraphobic mother Terry (Virginia Madsen) has cultivated a “comfort nest” in one of the bedrooms, from where she does nothing but watch TV and cause plumbing problems. 

If that wasn’t enough, Joy’s forthright mechanic father Rudy (Robert De Niro) is delivered to her door and her jealous, spiteful sister Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm) has been deriding her to her own children. Assailed from all angles and at the height of her despair, Joy happens upon an idea for a revolutionary mop and sets about making it happen, with the financial help of her father’s eccentric girlfriend Trudy (Isabella Rossellini) and later the backing of QVC executive Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper).

“Inspired by true stories of daring women. One in particular,” Joy is a film about how hard it is for a working-class gal to make good on her potential and realise her own personal American dream when everyone wants to put her down or beat her back – subject matter that’s lifted by the romance and delicacy of the execution. Although Joy is less flamboyant than Russell’s last effort, American Hustle, it’s made with more than a touch of magic and is a lot sweeter. Furthermore, Russell mines Joy’s fractious familial relations and the weird world of QVC to consistently amusing, if not quite hilarious, effect, while it’s cheering and rare for a film to place a woman’s career accomplishments at the fore.

De Niro and Cooper are spot-on in support but, appropriately enough, it’s the range of female characters that most impresses: from sour Peggy, despondent Terry and ostentatious Trudy, to Joy’s staunchest supporters Mimi and best friend Jackie (Dascha Polanco from Orange Is the New Black). And, as winning as ever, Lawrence leads by example in a multishaded, subtly dignified role that inspires great admiration, displaying a more understated brand of steeliness than we’ve seen from her of late.

Radiating sincerity and fuelled by female determination, Joy is a heart-warming tale to raise the spirit and offset those winter chills. Rich with optimism, idiosyncrasy and enchantment, this story of the travails of an ordinary heroine is as delightful as its title suggests.

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Joy is released in cinemas on New Year’s Day, 2016