Russell’s “Joy” Falls Short of Meaningful Feminist Commentary
Issue   |   Tue, 02/02/2016 - 23:35
Jennifer Lawrence stars as Joy who is based on the female pioneering inventor of the “Miracle Mop.”

Far before I settled on coming to Amherst, I have been a loyal aficionado of David O. Russell films. Certainly his early niche works are worth watching, but I, like most of the mainstream world, am partial to his more recent Academy-recognized films. “The Fighter” left me feeling raw, and I stayed up all night with the image of an underweight, crack cocaine-addicted Christian Bale emblazoned in my mind. “Silver Linings Playbook” nailed the concept of endearing family dysfunction. Also, I think what he does with mental illness is brilliant. “American Hustle” plays on the slimy and extravagant feel of the Nixon era perfectly. I love Russell’s raw, seemingly unedited human dialogue just as much as I love watching Robert De Niro, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence being tossed around in his offbeat, darkly comic plot lines.

Which is why I am thoroughly disappointed with his most recent work — disappointed to the point of writing this 800-word rant.

The film “Joy” is loosely based on the true story of Joy Manango, the inventor of the “Miracle Mop” and the president of Ingenious Designs. Russell’s portrayal of her life takes on the quintessential success story route. As the tale begins, Joy has bottomed out. She is divorced and a mother of two. She works an unprofitable and unfulfilling job and shares a home with her divorced parents, her antagonistic sister, her ever-present grandmother and her ex-husband, who resides in the basement, and spends his days honing his “singing” abilities. In some of the opening sequences, it becomes clear that Joy is but a certain engineering genius, but these aspirations died with her parents divorce. Until, of course, the passion is reignited.

The premise itself is pretty neutral. Had it been well written, it could have been great. But for once, Russell’s writing was off — slightly contrived, even. And his attempts at hyper-dramatization were unsuccessful. A particularly horrific example that sticks out: Russell feels the need to incorporate several nightmare sequences in which Joy attends the “funeral” of her dream to become a patented inventor. RIP to all of her hopes and aspirations.

I had the odd and slightly uncomfortable sense that Russell was trying to make a “feminist” film — whatever that even means. That being said, I am not about to level some “feminist critique” of his work; I simply do not think the film was particularly good, so naturally, the feminist themes embedded within it came across as fairly contrived. The film is narrated by Joy’s grandmother. I am not sure exactly why Russell chose this tactic, because the grandmother does not offer much insight beyond stating what should already be self-evident. Plus, I don’t see the grandmother being a consistent, crucial force in Joy’s life as she’s expected to be. She’s kind of a random choice, to be honest. Through her narration, Joy’s grandmother makes a point of reiterating again and again that Joy is a strong and independent woman who doesn’t “need a man” (except for one scene in which the same grandma tells her that she would find a great man someday, which totally contradicts everything she had been saying previously and quite honestly I am still confused about what the point of this was).

Nonetheless, I am a huge proponent of film and television as a medium of empowerment. Putting women and/or people of color and/or other marginalized groups in creative and central roles is crucial to realizing the necessary changes in human potentiality. That being said, the key is that these roles actually be creative, natural and ultimately well executed. Russell was seemingly determined to convince us that Joy was this powerful woman, it just was not working. I nearly gagged when, in a flashback scene, young Joy is playing “princesses” with her best friend and claims to possess this “special power” that makes it so that she doesn’t “need a prince.” This was ostensibly the first moment where we are supposed to see the makings of a strong-willed, independent businesswoman. But to me, the idea of “not needing a man” as a hallmark of powerful women seems to be a bit overdone and rather insipid at this point.

I love when Amherst alums go on to make intelligent and beautiful art. It makes me disproportionately proud, as if these were my own flesh and blood. I almost feel the offbeat Amherst-y sense of humor reverberating across the ages. At the same time, I feel especially inclined to poke fun at — and even formulate an exhaustive criticism towards — my quasi-classmates when need be. I still love you, David. I expect better from you next time.