Joy walks precipitously above a pool of American and libertarian cliches, and the fact that it not only completes the performance but does so while threatening to fall over at any moment only makes it more thrilling. It’s messy and herky-jerky, yes, but such sloppiness is the glue that ultimately binds the picture together into something more than just a standard biopic. Rather than choosing to wallow in the Oscar-bait tropes of a Tom Hooper flick, David O. Russell imbues Joy with an unabashed, out-and-out weirdness; as the titular character, Jennifer Lawrence reigns as queen by sheer virtue of being the only character resembling anything close to sane, struggling to build a future as nearly everyone in her life works in some way to wear her down.
Such a struggle is the backbone of the film, creating the basis of a satirical take on the American Dream–yet this swipe at national monomyth is where Russell chooses to diverge from his contemporaries. Rather than making the chase for wealth out to be a corrupting influence, as has been done to death in recent years, Joy instead portrays its seeker as one set upon by a multitude of forces, each one determined to keep her from achieving anything other than basic survival. In David O. Russell’s America, nobody wants to actually see you become a success–not those who already are a success, not strangers in the street, and least of all those close to you who might get unhappily reminded of their own failures in life.
All of this could very easily head straight into Randian territory, but what grounds Joy in reality is its earnest, gritty, and oftentimes frustrating portrayal of just what it means to be lower-class in America. Joy isn’t a superwoman built entirely off of ideology and platitudes, but a normal person just trying to make it through the day and make her future a little bit brighter. Work sucks. Her family can’t take care of themselves. Even the most simple of actions, like mopping, can become a frustrating exercise against the unforgiving nature of the universe.
This, truly, is what makes Joy work: a fantastic sense of humor about being at the absolute mercy of everything around you–and, hell, oftentimes at the mercy of your own stupid self as well. We all ostensibly “know” better than to marry the local deadbeat, or to trust our father’s new girlfriend of a few weeks on money matters; but things happen, stuff begins to pile up, and before we know it we’re just trying to get the screaming to stop so we can go to bed and do it all again the next morning–former hopes and aspirations be damned.
Breaking out of such a cycle is no transcendent or resplendent thing, and seldom does it come in the nice, neat package of a “greatest hits” storyline as portrayed in most biopics. There’s stumbling, faltering, and most definitely the chance that those you love the most are going to be the ones who try to keep you from freedom. Joy revels in this ugliness, making every single victory (no matter how small or insignificant) feel hard-won and jubilant. It’s a triumph of dedication in the face of an uncaring world–and, at the same time, a raspberry blown toward such universal apathy.