“Hands, give me the hands,” Bradley Cooper’s Neil Walker vehemently instructs a cameraman filming Jennifer Lawrence’s Joy Mangano as she sells her Miracle Mop on QVC. For Walker, the consummate showman (and perhaps the stand-in for writer/director David O. Russell), these appendages are the attribute that sets stars apart from the average person. Hands are important because, in his words, “that’s what people use.”
Russell uses hands as a motif running throughout “Joy,” a hymn to ingenuity and perseverance inspired by true stories of daring women. To him, hands mean physical labor, the kind of work traditionally delegated to men. But that traditional division of duties never stopped Joy, who built kingdoms out of paper as a child, dog collars as a teenager, and finally a self-wringing mop as an adult. Her knack for creation, when coupled with her practicality and pragmatism, means she has real potential for success.
Indicative of just how overextended Joy is among her large family, her hands spend most of their time at home doing household repairs like plumbing which would normally be left to the male authority figure. (Her ex-husband, Edgar Ramirez’s failed singer Tony, spends most of his day crooning in the basement.) On top of all the emotional labor of caring for the physical and emotional well-being of her two young children, she has virtually no time to pursue a path that could bring fulfillment and fortune. Yet another mess Joy must clean up enables her to dream up the revolutionary mop after shards of glass lead to gashes all over her hands.
In order to turn her flailing life around, Joy has to compete in the man’s world of business to get her product in front of customers. She has virtually no cues as to how to operate in this sphere; repeated asides from a fictional soap opera show the kind of cues from which Joy can draw. Boys get “The Godfather.” Girls get puffed-up camp like “The Joyful Storm.”
When she begins her mop venture, Joy relies heavily on advice from lawyers and other successful businesspeople – chiefly, the counsel provided from her father’s new girlfriend Trudy (Isabella Rosselini). It is she who poses the capitalistic conundrum of the two adversaries in commerce locked in a room with a firearm and asks whether Joy has the strength to pick up the gun. To secure Trudy’s financial assistance, Joy answers in the affirmative. But inside, she is wondering why there can only be two options in the story.
Joy’s journey pulling herself up by her bootstraps is not just another story of the American Dream. It’s about finding a new kind of capitalism altogether, one more concerned with common-sense solutions for working people than with amassing wealth. Her triumph comes, crucially, from never fully adapting to the ruthlessness of the male-established rules of the business world. Joy values utility, accuracy and fairness – three values to which she tenaciously clings even when the odds seem stacked against her.
Multiple characters in the film claim that she will be a whole new business. Not her products, but Joy herself. Indeed, she operates unconventionally if not completely fearlessly. Joy goes to sell her mop on Neil Walker’s fledgling television network QVC, taking it directly to the customer rather than navigating corporate bureaucracy. She stays friends with people whose interests do not entirely align with her own. And rather than trying to shut down any competition, Joy works to address the structural economic forces that straightjacket women. (Surely playing Joy had some bearing on Lawrence’s essay about the gender pay gap in Hollywood.)
David O. Russell’s so-called “Reinvention Trilogy” featured strong women in many prominent roles, but he finally moves his muse Jennifer Lawrence front and center to bask in the spotlight alone in “Joy.” Everything from the food stains on seemingly all her shirts to the way she releases decades of anxiety after selling her mop on QVC gives off the feeling that this person existed long before a camera started rolling. After playing somewhat crazy for her last two pairings with Russell, seeing her decisions and intuitions so thoroughly validated proves wonderfully gratifying. While perhaps it might not be her flashiest performance, it is certainly her most lived-in. Hands down. A- /