"HISTORY IS A commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. What is history? History is women following behind with a bucket."
That's from Alan Bennett's play The History Boys, not David O. Russell's new movie, Joy. Russell's opening epigraph is decidedly more optimistic and banal (it helpfully explains that a movie about a daring woman was inspired by other, actual daring women), but I couldn't get the Bennett line out of my head while watching Joy—in part because Joy's protagonist (guess what her name is), played by Jennifer Lawrence, invents a self-wringing mop (surprise!). That's right: Joy's invention is a tool designed to make cleaning up other people's literal messes easier for women like her.
This shouldn't be surprising: Joy reminded me of many women I know, who, in their professional and personal lives, quietly pick up after all of the people around them. A divorced mother of two whose family is so dysfunctional she's really like the mother of eight, Joy has been inventing things since childhood. But she doesn't pursue any of those inventions until she reaches a breaking point when, mopping up someone else's broken glass, she cuts her hands—hence the self-wringing mop.
I had some misgivings about this movie—namely, that it looked a lot like David O. Russell pandering to feminists. But after seeing Lawrence's acting in the final, interminable Hunger Games movies amount to stony-faced pouting, it's a huge relief to see her back in the game as a character slowly self-actualizing in the face of pretty terrible odds. If this is what his pandering looks like, maybe Russell should do it more often.
And though most of Russell's films contain mild-to-moderate levels of whimsy (e.g., Silver Linings Playbook's herky-jerky progression from cerebral-if-light character study into Dirty Dancing), that whimsy is completely unrestrained in Joy. There's even a fictional soap-opera-within-a-movie device used in much the same way David Lynch paralleled the storylines between the world of Twin Peaks and the fictional Invitation to Love. Amazingly, it all works: Rather than pretend that he isn't interested in telling fairy tales, here Russell fully embraces an endearingly stylized aesthetic.
But if this is a fairy tale, it's one that doesn't require a prince. After pairing Lawrence with ridiculously older love interests in both Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, it's refreshingly sane to see Bradley Cooper used here not as a romantic partner but as Joy's business mentor (who she ultimately outpaces professionally).
As I was leaving the press screening of Joy, and the publicity representative on hand solicited quotes from the steadily departing stream of reviewers, I happily told him I'd liked the movie, without reservations. To be clear, this almost never happens. My immediate response to most movies I review is usually something much closer to a poorly verbalized equivalent of ¯\_()_/¯, and Joy is by no means perfect, so I couldn't really articulate why I liked it so immediately—until I overheard another critic's response. "It wasn't mind blowing," he said. "But it was enjoyable."
There it was: Joy is a film about a working-class inventor and mother who overcomes economic distress, gaslighting, family dysfunction, and institutional sexism to become a formidable businesswoman who uses her power for good. One of her most important relationships is with a business mentor and colleague, but it isn't a romance. These things may not seem revolutionary, but in a small-minded Hollywood that likes to define female characters' worth by their relationships, they're actually exceedingly rare. Not mind blowing? Clearly, that guy hadn't been paying attention. Luckily, here I am, following with a bucket.