Women Who Clean
Is it my imagination, or are there still not that many new films being released at the moment? Films for grown-ups, I mean; if you're after CGI animations aimed squarely at the family audience, you don't have anything to worry about – but Disney's heavy investment in the stellar conflict industry seems to have frightened nearly everyone else off.
Still, there are some people at least attempting to stick to How Things Are Usually Done, and how things are usually done is that January is when the films hoping for a big awards season tally start to make their presence felt. And, lo, this is beginning to happen, and one of these films is David O Russell's Joy.
This is one of those films which is theoretically based on a true story, but which casts loose from the anchor of historical accuracy so energetically that the movie-makers haven't really bothered emphasising its basis in reality. Certainly I hadn't heard of the person whose life-story it purports to tell, one Joy Mangano, played in the film by Jennifer Lawrence.
The film seems to be set in an intentionally non-specific past (I would have said early 80s, probably, but it turns out the events portrayed actually happened in in the late 80s and early 90s), with Joy working for an airline and contending with all manner of disasters at home: her mother (Virginia Madsen) is a virtual recluse, obsessed with absurdly glossy TV soap operas, her father (Robert De Niro) has just been thrown out by his third wife and is living in the basement with her ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez, who it must be said looks a bit like Bradley Cooper – this is confusing, as Cooper is in the movie too). All this and looking after her children too has taken its toll on Joy, who has had most of the creativity and promise she showed as a child ground out of her. The only person who remembers and believes in her is her grandmother (Diane Ladd, who looks a bit like Meryl Streep – this is less confusing, as Streep is not in the movie).
Well, anyway, life goes chaotically along until one day some wine gets spilled in a place it shouldn't, and the ensuing trauma inspires Joy to design a new kind of mop to help with this kind of crisis. This is a mop like no other. This is a mop that could change the world. Or so Joy thinks, and so she sets off to make her dreams a reality (her dreams being of her new mop).
But the path to success is a hard one, and Joy finds herself sinking deeper and deeper into debt as she struggles to give her mop the success it deserves. Finally there is a glimmer of hope, when her ex-husband manages to help her get a foot in the door at the revolutionary new shopping channel QVC, where she meets thrusting young visionary Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper – told you he'd turn up). Is this the chance she has been waiting for?
Well, given it's fairly rare for Hollywood to spend $60m on a biopic of a bankrupt inventor, you can probably guess the answer to that one yourself, but there are several more twists in the tale before the closing credits start to roll. It is an undeniably engaging and curious story, very much in tune with the mythology of America (unemployed single mother becomes multi-millionaire due to enterprise and hard work), although some of the subject matter is slightly less, er, heroic, than one might expect in this kind of film. Or, to put it another way, this is probably the most significant film ever made about mops and the shopping channel.
I feel like I now know more about Joy Mangano's mop than I do about many significant human beings in recent world history. People go on about the mop at great length, as well as several associated topics, such as injection-moulded plastic and the intricacies of patent protection law. It's a sign of the cachet that David O Russell clearly has around Hollywood, following Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, that he was permitted to make a film about such unpromising subject matter.
It probably helps that, firstly, Joy is primarily the kind of relationship-based comedy drama the director has previously shown such facility for – there's an undeniable warmth and humour to the satellite characters whirling around Joy that makes the film quite pleasant to watch. And, secondly, the appearance of Russell's rep company of actors (Lawrence, De Niro, Cooper), all of whom the Academy have a marked fondness for, probably helped the suits at the studio decide to greenlight this movie.
That said, this time round Cooper has a decidedly supporting role (he is as solid as ever), and the focus is definitely on Lawrence. She is turning into one of those performers who the Academy seems to feel obliged to nominate for something every year, almost on principle, and this film feels very much like a vehicle for her, almost precision-tooled to permit her to show off her always-impressive range as an actor – she gets to be emotional, show strength, and so on. The various scenes of her building her mop, pitching for funding for her business, and then finally fly-pitching the thing in mall car parks do sort of summon up the spectres of The A-Team, Dragon's Den, and Only Fools And Horses, but the fact that it never quite becomes absurd is probably in no small part due to the strength of Lawrence's performance.
In the end this isn't the subtlest of movies: the message about empowerment and self-realisation may as well flash up on a caption at key moments, and the contrast between Joy and her in-retreat-from-reality mum is handled with a broad brush, too. But it's never actually tedious to watch, and the performances and writing are strong throughout. I'm not sure mopping and shopping are quite deserving of the skill and talent that have gone into this movie (I thought there was frequently a distinct whiff of bathos pervading the whole thing), but I can think of many worse things people could be making films about. I don't really believe in portents, but if Joy is pointing the way for the rest of 2016's films, they're going to be impressively made, quite enjoyable, but also just a little bit weird.