THE FIRST TIME I went to see Joy, I only made it 30 minutes in. “The Revenant is starting in 10,” my partner whispered after we exchanged several desperate looks. We pretended to look for the bathroom, got beers, crept past the ticketing staff, and found the other screening down the corridor of the multiplex. We sat there for two hours as Leonardo DiCaprio got mauled by a bear and grunted profusely, feeling that we had made the right decision. Encouraged by LARB, I went to see Joy again two weeks later. And while I did not become less put off by the conceit of the film, I began to feel, oddly enough, that Joy shared in my consternation. Joy is a film about the pursuit of wealth and opportunity that isn’t quite sure if the story it tells should be told anymore. For our crisis-ridden times, it seeks to be — impossibly enough — both an exacting mirror and an escapist dream.
Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) is a young woman who seems to have driven her life into a dead end. She was her high school’s valedictorian and was admitted to “a college in Boston,” but she stayed at home because her parents were divorcing. Shortly thereafter, her best friend Jackie (Dascha Polanco) introduced her to Tony (Edgar Ramirez), a Venezuelan musician whom Joy fell for, married, and promptly divorced. As a result, when we meet her, Joy is a young, single mother with two children and a mortgage that she can hardly pay for. The family leans on Joy immeasurably. Her mother (Virginia Madsen) spends her days watching soap operas in bed and clogging up the sink with her obsessively brushed hair. Her father (Robert De Niro) has her do accounting for his truck repair firm and moves in with her after his long-term lover kicks him out. Joy’s ex-husband is still living in her basement; her children are frequently ill, weepy, or needy. Joy rises from these ashes after an Italian millionaire named Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), whom her father meets through a dating service, begrudgingly agrees to invest in a new mop design that Joy has come up with. Several legal and commercial standoffs later, Joy secures a full patent for her invention, and we are given hints of the great fortune that she will go on to make.
Joy is narrated by the protagonist’s grandmother (Diane Ladd). This grandmother dotes on Joy. She is also, we find out just midway through the film, dead while she is speaking to us. This somehow gives her total insight into Joy’s mind (and any number of camera angles onto Joy’s body) in the present, past, and future. As her grandmother sees it, Joy can do no wrong: she suffers, perseveres, and keeps the family together. She also brings out the best in everyone else — especially in her ex-husband, who in the course of the film becomes a reliable domestic (if platonic) partner to her. Indeed, the way that Joy’s “Mimi” tells it, her story is uncannily like The Revenant: a tale of ruthless foes, generally hapless but well-meaning teammates, and unrelenting effort by the central protagonist as she clambers toward her chosen goal — a goal defined here not as an elaborate revenge plot but as a successful promotional campaign for a self-wringing cleaning device. The narrator imperiously asks us to root for Joy, as she battles against men, debt, and domesticity. The film cringes adolescently under the weight of all this care and attentiveness.
This aggrandizing, otherworldly narrator is one among many devices that lend Joy’s plot and characters an air of unreality. This unreality is all the stranger since Joy is, after all, supposed to be a biopic, based on the life of Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano. Besides the grandmother’s heavenly voice, Joy’s air of pro-feminist naturalism is repeatedly disturbed by its protagonist’s many dream sequences, in which she is visited and upbraided by a younger version of herself. The movie’s plot also raises eyebrows — on purpose, it seems — through the numerous economic near-miracles that its protagonist brings into being. Its narrative follows a pattern of deep crisis followed by a fortuitous resolution, which is usually achieved by having Joy storm back into a room where she has just been cheated or humiliated. “My Joy, she knows how to bring the hammer down,” Joy’s grandmother exclaims in a voiceover after one such tumultuous confrontation. Given how often Jennifer Lawrence has played versions of those explosively assertive scenes — from Winter’s Bone (2010) through The Hunger Games (2012–2016) — the repetitiveness with which this new film returns to them, time and again, soon turns parodic. At the very least, these heroic reversals start to seem like instances of very hopeful magical thinking.
One feels similar wariness about the telemarketing channel that first makes Joy and her mop famous in an impossible reversal of fortune. The camera and a nationwide audience magically fall in love with the terrified, awkward Joy, apparently fulfilling not only Joy’s all-American dream of entrepreneurship but also a particularly Hollywood dream of stardom. The surreality of Joy’s as-seen-on-TV success is compounded by the film’s continual return to an impossibly endless soap opera that four generations of Joy’s family are obsessed with. Joy’s mother is watching this show — something like Dynasty but much more women-centered — in what seems like an interminable loop of sequels and reruns. This is especially uncanny since, once Joy finally strikes it rich, she adopts some of the mannerisms and dress codes of her mother’s TV heroines.
The New York Times has described Joy as a film that thinks it’s showing us something about women but is, in fact, only telling it. I would push that point further: this film does not know what story about women it really wants to tell. Joy often lingers over Jennifer Lawrence’s face, apparently scanning it for some definitive answer about whether it ought to take her character’s shows of despair seriously. When Joy does succeed at something — as when we watch her mop’s sales suddenly soar to 47,000 within minutes — these resolutions bear an air of fantastical inexplicability. In invoking these fantasies, while marking them as such, Joy wants to have its cake and eat it, too. It performs its neoliberal solemnities — its affirmation of independent women, good personal boundaries, and free enterprise — like a somewhat self-doubting teenager performing for his or her parents. Joy does not merely want to tell the story of a successful female entrepreneur. It also seeks to capture the act of constructing such a story and trying to believe in it, as if it was not certain that we still do.
The opening and closing shots of Joy — both of which are some of the most unusual shots in the whole film — allegorize this sense of indecision. In the opening sequence, we see two women shot in black-and-white. They are having a conversation, but they are not looking at each other. They are both standing stiffly, hardly moving their arms or legs, in spite of how expressive their faces are. A few scenes later, the mystery of this shot is quietly resolved. The same two women repeat their opening lines on Joy’s home TV screen. But this time, the perspective from which we see them is quite different: they are presented to us in alternating portrait shots, with nothing more than their heads and necks visible. They never appear in the same shot at once. It is now apparent that, in the first sequence, we saw a candid shot of these two women, actresses in a soap opera, from a camera for which they were not performing. This camera captured the strange poses that they had to adopt for their close-ups. Before we even knew how entrancing the world of this soap opera is for everyone in Joy’s life, we are given means to distance ourselves from it, as from a dream-world that we have already seen through by the time we observe the film’s characters being fooled by its fantasy.
This eerie opening is echoed by an equally odd final shot. When the film ends, Joy is not yet rich, but she has just scored her first, incontestable professional victory: she forced a Texas businessman to relinquish patent rights to her now-successful mop design, and to pay back to her the money she originally lost trying to fight him for it. Joy walks out of the cheap motel where she has just confronted the businessman, and she triumphantly puts on huge aviator glasses. Her grandmother teleports us to a future, several years later, when Joy has become an immensely rich, successful businesswoman. We see her kiss her children and generously listen to disadvantaged people’s ideas for new cleaning products. One woman cries when Joy offers to help her patent a travel-sized lint roller. And then the grandmother teleports us back into the present, as Joy puts on her aviator glasses one more time. Between the hyperboles of Joy’s idealized future and this comically repeated affirmation of her toughness, it suddenly seems that what we have been watching is not a woman’s success story but someone’s fantasy about this woman’s success story: a fantasy in which, as in any other daydream, you get to rewind and replay your favorite parts again and again. As in the opening soap opera shot, it seems that we have been invited too close into the site of someone’s dream-life — so close as to have seen both its appeal and its obvious artifice.
At bottom, this mimetic wobbliness appears to stem from Joy’s hesitation about its central narrative. As both the trailer and the grandmother tell us, we’re witnessing the spectacle of a long-suffering woman rising to independence and to self-made wealth. But Joy conveys some degree of self-consciousness about telling us stories of great entrepreneurs in our current time of economic instability, when the notion of getting a job, and keeping it, already seems like a great achievement. The vibrant ’80s economy that buoys Joy up has come to seem like an impossible dream of opportunity.
Cynically speaking, this hesitation is a business decision on the part of Joy’s producers, and not an unwise one. One only has to look at other recent Hollywood productions to see how hesitant the film industry has become about showing positive images of the actual or aspiring one percent. Consider, for example, the narcissistic, hipster AI magnate of Ex Machina (2015), or even — to invoke another Jennifer Lawrence venture — the ultra-rich urbanites of District 1 in The Hunger Games. Joy wants to expand our narratives of what it takes to become rich and successful, edging them closer to the kind of economic reality we live in now. Joy starts out deep in debt and falls deeper and deeper into it. Right before the film’s climactic reversal, she is forced to sign bankruptcy papers. For most of the film, the plot is more about the intense financial and personal costs of entrepreneurship than it is about Joy’s intrinsic capacity for success. The fact that Joy’s eventual victories all have a fantastical air to them makes these harsh economic realities seem more poignant: we are never allowed to forget how easy it would have been for Joy to cave in to them.
This is not to say that Joy ends up making a radical social statement. The way the film depicts Joy braving these challenges generally relies on only-slightly-updated, traditional family values. For instance, she is only able to get her business going because Trudy, her father’s new girlfriend, agrees to invest in it — which, given that her father pops this question around their fifth date, seems incredibly generous. Joy lands her biggest business opportunity — the chance to present her work to a famous telemarketer, Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper) — through her ex-husband. Afterward, she is only able to get comfortable onscreen because her best friend, Jackie, fakes an anonymous call into the studio. As Joy embarks on her great venture, her family also continues to help her out in more daily ways: taking care of her children, feeding her cold medicine, and even bailing her out of jail. And even though, for most of the film, Joy is a proudly single and independent woman, the ending strongly suggests that she would like what she and her sister used to call “a handsome prince” to come share all this with her. (Neil would do.)
According to Joy, capitalism is supposed to reward our efforts. But I wondered, watching Joy pull her aviators over her eyes for a third time, what if this effort begins to seem pointless? As Joy walks off into the Dallas sunlight, the film tries to convince us that her fresh energies are their own reward. This, again, is much like the lesson of The Revenant: if you struggle hard enough, you will find the strength to struggle more. In both films, the comfort this realization is supposed to give us comes from an implicit belief that our social structures and desires are unchanging. It also comes from an implicit fear of what might happen if we stopped working and realized that these social structures — let alone our desires — have changed. The only way out of such a contract is to void it: not, as Joy does at the end of the film, to renegotiate it and go back into the game. Having returned to Joy after I left it the first time in medias res helped me to understand my original impulse. The film’s heroine can do anything, it seems, except walk out for real.
Marta Figlerowicz is an Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature and English at Yale and a member of the Harvard Society of Fellows. Her writing has also appeared or is forthcoming in n+1, Boston Review, Post45 (Contemporaries), Film Quarterly, and elsewhere.