Here is a partial list of the things you will see in “Joy”, that you won’t see in a lot of other movies:
K-Mart parking lots full of slush.
Styrofoam, used the way Styrofoam was used in the 80’s–liberally and everywhere.
Brown velvet upholstery.
Thickly carpeted staircases, like the way all your friends’ houses used to be when you were growing up.
Ubiquitously cheap cars.
Home Shopping Network jewelry.
The Home Shopping Network, period.
Sparse and unprofessional home decor.
Thick, powdery 90’s foundation makeup.
Getting the picture? Do you remember this stuff? Because David O. Russell does, and increasingly he is making this world–the world of two-to-three-decade-old consumer goods, used in middle-to-lower class houses everywhere between the coasts–his home court. To watch “American Hustle”, “Silver Linings Playbook”, and now “Joy”, is to watch Russell carving out a directorial turf–Woody Allen gets Manhattan and Paris, Michael Bay gets Los Angeles, but David O. Russell gets *everything in between*. And holy shit, does he get it: no other current screenwriter has such a strong homing instinct for the precise details of American middle-class family dynamics.
Consider the opening of the movie: Joy is surprised by her dad’s unexpected return to her house. She lets him move in–of course, he’s her dad–but he has to take space in the basement, because Joy’s grandmother has the guest room. The side room is out, because that’s where Joy’s mother, who never leaves the house, mainlines her soap operas 24/7. Unfortunately, the basement is very crowded. Because Joy’s ex-husband lives down there, too. None of this is presented as “cute” or “quirky”; Joy is stressed, already late, and trying her best to manage her father; on his way in, he dumps a pile of laundry in her arms, kisses her on the cheek and tells her she has the “magic touch” for whitening clothes, then picks a screaming fight with her mother and starts to pick one with her ex-husband until Joy must literally separate them with a boundary ribbon of toilet paper. As she climbs the stairs from the basement, already resigned to being late for work, you can hear their inevitable argument ramping back up.
Does any of this sound familiar? Just off the top of my head, I can think of about eight women whose family lives are minefields rivaling Joy’s: I bet you can, too. This round-the clock balancing act is what’s meant, in feminist discourse, by “emotional labor”; in five exhausting minutes, we see Joy caring for a mother whose clear mental illness she can’t afford to treat, accommodating a father whose emotional age hovers around 19, taking a scolding from her half-sister for allowing their grandmother to leave the house in winter to drive Joy’s two children to an event. When she has the epiphany that leads to her invention, her family offers begrudging support, larded heavily with jealousy, passive-aggression, and bad legal advice. Watching Joy try to keep her head above water would be compelling enough viewing, but Joy doesn’t want to just tread water–she wants to succeed at the American Dream. Tall order.
Luckily for her, she is in a David O. Russell movie. And all these note-perfect details should not distract you from the fact that David O. Russell writes fairy tales, fantasies in which scrappy underdogs yank themselves, by their bootstraps, into the stratosphere. The nostalgia impelling us into this world is driven by real details–we who lived through the 80s and 90s recognize the currency of brown velvet sofas and black elastic hair ties and QVC. We can smell Joy’s living room. But the American Dream that Joy is chasing died well before she was born, if indeed it ever was true. The real engine driving this train–driving Joy–is our shared wish that somehow, if we work hard enough, if we spin enough plates, if we have the Next Big Idea, if we never give up, it might come true again.