On the way to see “Joy” with my mom the day after Christmas, we stopped and ran some errands. At CVS, the woman at the counter gave me a quick lesson in couponing and told me how to use two of the receipts I had together to buy a new razor for only a dollar. When we dropped off a skirt to be taken in at the tailor, the seamstress talked about her holiday dinner while she penciled in appointments for the upcoming week. We ran through the thick-falling snow to the dry cleaners to pick up a couple of shirts for my dad, and after we carefully hung them in the back seat of the car, we were back on our way to the movies.
In Joy, a struggling single mother (Jennifer Lawrence, “The Hunger Games”) works to support her sprawling family while continually slighted by her bedridden mother (Virginia Madsen, “Sideways”), aimless ex-husband (Édgar Ramírez, “The Bourne Ultimatum”) and flighty father (Robert De Niro, “Goodfellas”) who all depend on her. After being dragged on a sailboat trip where she is forced to clean up spilled red wine and broken glass with an old mop, cutting her hands in the process, she borrows her daughter’s crayons to draw up the blueprints for a self-wringing mop, finally fulfilling her dream of being an inventor after years of pushing her own life to the side. Joy works tirelessly to sell her mop on streets, in shops and eventually on QVC, becoming a hugely powerful businesswoman and multimillion dollar corporation owner.
Based on the real life of Joy Mangano, whose inventions include not only the self-wringing mop but velvet hangers, traveling cosmetic cases and portable steamers, the film holds storytelling itself up as a central theme, speaking almost anecdotally about the complications that come with achieving the American Dream. Joy’s grandmother Mimi narrates the entire story from beyond the grave and the film is peppered with footage from the characters’ home movies, calling attention to the construction of the story itself. There is a strange mix of authentic moments and constructed ones, and Joy first comes to understand ideas of betrayal and determination through watching elaborate soap operas with her mother as a child. Additionally, as she and her husband fall in love, they sing together on a stage with fake snow falling and artificial light encircling them. It’s not exactly the picture-perfect moment of seemingly realistic but less honest films, but it also isn’t trying to convince its audience that perfect moments or successes just happen on their own.
“Joy” tells its story with the determination and quiet punch of a mobster film, with Jennifer Lawrence’s unforgiving stare managing to speak to the duality of a character who has given up everything and will fight tirelessly for success, all in the form of selling a mop and acting primarily as a mother. She scouts out success in any niche that is available to her, and feminizes the mobster movie in a way that does not punch out one character to be replaced by a woman, or downplay the power that comes with the genre. The mop that brings Joy success is designed by and for women looking for better ways to clean their homes and Joy’s young daughter hovers in the back of every scene, watching her mother’s long and winding path to reputability. “Joy” is a mob movie about the cottage industry in the midst of modernity, and it tells a story about American achievement from the ground up, showing that there is no set path toward success.
As I left the theater, overwhelmed with the power that could come from this story about a mother inventing a mop with crayons and an under-the-table loan from a friend, I couldn’t help but think back to the women I had encountered earlier that day, working in stores around my hometown. “Joy” ’s power doesn’t come from its elaborate cinematography, attractive lighting or perfectly paced script. It comes from the reality of the situation it is reconstructing for us on screen. Every day in innumerable ways, we encounter mothers working to construct some sort of success for those who depend on them, in any way they find possible. Whether it’s inventing a new mop or hemming skirts for a neighborhood of girls, this pocket of American success reflects from the screen into our everyday lives. In the movie, as Joy sold her first round of mops on QVC, 50,000 units each priced at the classic infomercial rate of $19.95, my mom pulled out her phone in the middle of the theater to calculate how much money was just made (around 1 million dollars). In the credits, it shows that Joy Mangano was one of the producers of the film, just another endeavor to add to her already long and diverse list. These crossovers between reality and storytelling hit hard in Joy, bringing the film from the realm of a powerful, mobster-esque movie to one about the reality of success in America and building a solid life any way you find possible.