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Joy, the new Jennifer Lawrence movie, could have been so good. Instead, it’s awful. Why?

Somewhere inside of this train wreck is one of the year's best films. Too bad nobody found it in time.

Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper star in Joy. (Okay, Lawrence stars. Cooper is in a few scenes.)
Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper star in Joy. (Okay, Lawrence stars. Cooper is in a few scenes.)
20th Century Fox
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Hidden somewhere inside of Joy, the shockingly bad new film that reunites director David O. Russell with star Jennifer Lawrence, is one of the best movies of the year. The problem is that Russell and his team just couldn't find it in time for the film's release.

So why does it go so wrong? There are three big reasons.

1) Lawrence is a bad fit for the title role — even though she seems right

Jennifer Lawrence stars in Joy.
Jennifer Lawrence is just too young to play the title role in Joy.
20th Century Fox

Lawrence plays Joy Mangano, the inventor who's most famous for the Miracle Mop, the first self-wringing mop. Mangano invented the mop in 1990 when she was in her mid-30s. 1990 is also the year Lawrence was born. You can see where I'm going with this.



Russell has frequently cast Lawrence as women who would more likely be played by actresses in their 30s or even 40s. This won her an Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook — where you could sort of buy the then-22 Lawrence as a widow, without trying too hard. But in Joy, Lawrence essentially plays the same role as she played in 2013's American Hustle: that of a woman who has kids and has been divorced for a while. There's an air of frustration and desperation to these characters that Lawrence captures, but she's simply too young to fully embody it.

It's easy to see why Russell is so drawn to her for these parts. Lawrence has tons of natural screen presence, and her bold, brassy nature aligns well with women characters who feel like they can't waste their last shot at a better life. But when the latter portions of Joy ask Lawrence to play a 40-something version of Mangano, the problems with the casting decision become all too apparent. A 35-year-old Lawrence would have knocked this role out of the park; at 25, she's just too green.

2) The movie is too short and consequently lacks any story structure whatsoever

Joy stars Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, and Edgar Ramirez.
Joy's relationships to her father (Robert DeNiro, center) and ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez) are never given the grounding they would need to be potent.
20th Century Fox

The mistake of casting Lawrence wouldn't have mattered if the underlying film supporting her were better. But even at two hours and four minutes, Joy struggles to come together.

In particular, the first half-hour or so is a muddled, poorly edited mess, cutting wildly between scenes and storylines with flagrant disregard for any potential connective tissue. Things just sort of happen to the characters, and while you can see that Russell (who wrote the script, from an original draft by Bridesmaids' Annie Mumolo) is trying to set up just how unfortunate Joy's life had been before she invented her famous mop, there's often no rhyme or reason to how the story lurches forward, or even backward (thanks to a few strange, ill-timed flashbacks). Everything needs more room to breathe, but the film rushes forward, heedlessly.

The best part of this movie is also the one that does the least leaping between time periods or storylines. It falls in the middle of the film, when Joy makes and sells her invention to QVC and then has to take matters into her own hands after the product initially proves a flop. There are two big set pieces at the network, first as Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper) demonstrates how sales are made on TV, and then as Joy herself appears in front of the camera to make her own pitch.

In those scenes, the movie is as direct and alive as anything released this year. But then when the story returns to Joy's home life, it reverts to jumpy, frenetic editing and storytelling in which the characters do things seemingly at random. Russell dedicates the film to strong women in its opening passages, but his "quirky, yelling family" structure doesn't properly underline everything Joy must overcome to get her big shot.

The conclusion seems simple: For Joy's struggles and eventual triumphs to have as much emotional weight as they deserved, the movie's "Joy at home" segments required more screentime. As it stands, the random cutting inspires whiplash, not momentum.

3) The movie is scared of being what it is

Joy's gigantic cast.
Joy would love for you to care deeply about all of these people. It does a poor job handling this task.
20th Century Fox

Think about the advertising you've seen for Joy. Most of it has focused on Lawrence's face — which makes sense, as she's one of the biggest stars on Earth. But beyond Jennifer Lawrence starring in this movie, what do you truly know about it? Almost nothing, I would wager. The ad campaign seems dedicated to obfuscating the fact that Joy is about a woman who invents a mop.

But why does that have to be a bad thing? As I said above, the best part of this movie involves the period when Joy first invents the mop, then convinces others to invest in it, and then finally sells the damn thing on TV. This is the American dream, right? You see a niche in the marketplace, and you fill it. You become rich doing so. People love to see exciting underdog stories like this!

So why, then, does Joy seem so desperate to distance itself from its own premise? The film's best material centers on Joy and the mop. The film's worst material introduces interpersonal conflicts that are poorly set up and even more poorly resolved. Everything from the film's marketing to its structure runs away from its biopic heart and toward those poorly handled interpersonal conflicts. It's just weird.

But the story of a woman who found herself backed into a corner, then mopped her way right out of it? That's one thick with potential and irony, and could make for a tremendous film. When Joy embraces that side of itself, it almost gets there. When it doesn't, well, it's just plain bad.

Joy is playing throughout the country.

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