by Danny Stout
In a quagmire flooded by ultra-action, special effects, and pandering half-witted comedy films, (e.g., Will Farrell fare), Joy, an honest straightforward story is gritty and refreshingly salient. Lightfare rags-to-riches tales serve up more pleasure than pain. In Pretty Woman, Trading Places and The Blind Side, “even the bad times are good,” but Director David O. Russell paints a picture of dreary days, keeping us wondering whether the protagonist will get to the surface for a lifesaving breath, or drown in an ocean of adversity. Since the economic crisis of 2008, keeping the faith is a continuing exhortation in LDS general conference. Many, I suspect will appreciate the no-fluff honesty of Joy.
Throughout her childhood, Grandma notes Joy Mangano’s (Jennifer Lawrence) creativity; she will do something exceptional. By early adulthood, this hasn’t come to fruition with a divorced mother watching soap operas all day, and an unemployed former husband living in the basement. She works as an airline ticket clerk enduring snarky complaints all day. Her sister constantly criticizes her, deepening feelings of failure. Then, her father’s (Robert De Niro) second wife dumps him at Joy’s house: “You take him, I can’t take it anymore.” A pipe breaks under the floor, and failure to pay the phone bill cuts communication with the outside world.
Exhausted, Joy has fairy tale dreams where she does well for herself. Determined, she invents a plastic Miracle Mop that’s wrung out without touching the dirty strands, and thrown in the washing machine without rinsing in the kitchen sink. Now, she needs her father’s new girlfriend to lend her start-up money, and dad to arrange the manufacturing. But, Joy can’t sell the mops (they’re too costly to make), and a company in L.A. is stealing her patent. After a surge of optimism, reality seeps back in. According to Director Russell, “If you’re going to live a fairytale you’ve got to go through the goblins.” Fairy tale dreams are “emotional nightmares of your youth,” he says. Like his other films, “Silver Linings Playbook,” “The Fighter,” and “American Hustle,” success is a vague concept, earned in the minefields of life; no skipping steps or shortcuts. Do the protagonists make it? keeping us guessing is Russell’s directorial gift. Yet whether Joy makes it big is no consequence; it’s what she becomes through the refiner’s fire that defines victory. It’s similar to Joseph Smith’s “rough stone rolling” self assessment. A powerful element of Richard Bushman’s biography of Smith is the realism of the Prophet’s personal development.
American realism deviates from the instant gratification of rags-to-riches films by shifting the focus from the rewards, in this case millions for mop sales on QVC, the home shopping network, to human development, or how an individual becomes something. How a person is different at the end of the struggle compared to the beginning. Realist moviegoers project their own struggles into the narrative, deriving an idea or emotional uplift. Others have enough pain in their lives; they’re perfectly satisfied with the predictable upbeat The Blind Side. The name Joy is initially deceptive; much of the movie is anything but. However, it stretches the meaning of joy until it’s synonymous with adversity, and the maturity it yields. Still in her clothes, Joy falls asleep on her children’s beds or the sofa. There’s grace in her well-earned slumber and justice in fairytale dreams where she’s earned her grandmother’s loving validation.
Russell calls this “cinema of the ordinary,” implying that real life is high drama, and the players increasingly fascinating as we peel back the layers of their idiosyncrasies and character traits. For Tom Jode in the Grapes of Wrath, it’s the dogged pursuit of justice, and in Death of a Salesman Biff Loman tearfully admits that he’s a regular guy, not the great businessman his father, Willy, has labeled him as his whole life. In a climactic scene, he agonizingly implores Willy to release him from a lifelong lie to finally claim his true identity. Audiences for Death of a Salesman left the theater in silence deeply moved, having been hit over the head with the realization that our dreams may be illusions. American realism continues to confront the dilemmas of life, such as the loss of youthful optimism (American Beauty), loving someone despite their infirmities (Leaving Las Vegas), determining the limits of conformity (Revolutionary Road), and falling out of love (Little Children).
Family is an inevitable element in American realism. In George Bernard Shaw’s play, Man and Superman, it’s the obstacle, while Theresa Connelly’s film, Polish Wedding, the pejorative “dysfunctional family” is turned on its head as all members, no matter their problems, draw on the family for sustenance; it’s what gets them through life despite poor decisions. Joy is similar in that when it counts, family, friends, and QVC executive Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper) rally to Joy’s cause. “The family” may be in trouble today, but Joy testifies that it is alive and well despite the flaws of its members.
The cinema has many uses, i.e., entertainment, escape, and education. It can also remind us of the real joy that comes from working through the roadblocks of everyday life.