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Issue #1715      January 20, 2016

Film review by Bob Treasure


Joy is about Amerika and capitalism or, as apologists would like to describe it, “free enterprise”. Hence it is a double-edged sword, and needs to be viewed critically. On the plus side Joy describes the mess we all find ourselves in, and in this sense it is a “good movie”. As with Director David O Russell’s earlier farce expose of Amerikan “Law ’n Order”, American Hustle, the emphasis is on people and their struggles to survive. Most of the shots are close-ups, so that dialogue and personal reaction are most important; the background is almost incidental.

“Almost” that is. While the context appears secondary, it is actually crucially important. Joy (Jennifer Lawrence – Hunger Games) has a family which is an allegory of Amerikan social dysfunction: her mother dwells in a small bedroom compulsively watching soaps; her Latino ex-husband resides and rehearses his Tom Jones persona in the basement and her father (Robert de Niro), who “always has to be in love”, has just been delivered to her doorstep by his previous lover as “broken” and “impossible to live with”. Grandma always tries to be positive but is impotent, and the kids are being bullied at school. They all live together in a small suburban two-storey.

Social life is thus chaotic and hand-to-mouth and reliant on Joy – we have the suspicion that something “good” lies beneath the anarchy and that this goodness is Joy’s dream/ambition/creativity.

The idea of “creativity” is central to the movie. What is it? Why does it happen? What is its motive? Is “necessity the mother of invention” or is there, within us all, a “gift bestowing virtue” that makes us want to give something good to the world?

In the event, Joy loses her job and “invents” an improved mop, which she patents and enjoins her family’s assistance/investment to manufacture. Clearly, the “idea” of a mop is not new and what Joy does is to add some labour-saving modifications to make it “better”.

Does she deserve some reward to drag her and her family out of the “working-class swamp”? We join Joy as she seeks to convince the world of the value of her creation, but what happens is that her creative contribution becomes lost in the process of capitalist investment, production (cheap illegal? migrant labour is employed to make the new mops), and selling … the role of Amerikan “advertising” gets a special ironic guernsey, here.

According to script, “advertising” is the medium by which “ordinary people” like Joy get to rub shoulders with the “extraordinaries”: it’s how they get their message out. We are constantly reminded that this happens best in Amerika where, despite all the confusion, “ideas” spread via the 5th estate and social mobility is all around.

At a certain point Joy loses ownership of her idea. Of course, in a capitalist society, “ownership” is everything and so Joy must lose everything – her hypocritical family, once keen to ride the success bandwagon, now desperately wants her to sign the bankruptcy papers so they can escape with minimal damage. All social relationships again collapse, and we are sliding back into the swamp.

But Joy has learned how to survive modern Amerikan “free enterprise”. A metaphor from one of her mother’s soap-operas, where a woman is given a gun to kill an opponent and thus save her own interests, is reinforced by Trudy (brilliantly played by Isabella Rossellini, Ingrid Bergman’s daughter, now broaching old age herself), her father’s new flame and ruthless financier, who forces Joy to pledge her willingness to kill others to protect her investment. This Joy ultimately does, metaphorically, to save “everything”, and to become a “success”.

Therefore, we must not be fooled by Amerika’s apparent economic malaise and social dysfunction, because beneath it all the motive for continued success remains fertile. It gestates amid the desperation of its people to win success and create freedom from the bonds of necessity – it’s the dynamic of progress, forget the “gift bestowing virtue”!

The hierarchy of bottom and top consequently remains as a necessity, and is underpinned by the violence of ruthless competition and the ghastly swamp of underclass struggle. To cap it all, Joy is finally shown dispensing largesse to a woman (and her haggard family) “with an idea” because, after all, “she knows what it’s like”! The irony that she is in fact, now in the same position as those glib harbingers of the ruling class before whom she had humiliated herself in an earlier life, seems to have been forgotten. She has become Donald Trump in a power-dress: another horrid Amerikan Success Story.

If there is any further proof needed that Joy is a desperate apologia for the current state of Amerikan capitalism just look at the list of its major producers, headed by none other than the Murdoch-owned Fox, with the real Joy Mangano as one of its pre-eminent cable TV junk-product presenters. Enough said.

Next article – Neo-liberalism raises its ugly head in South America

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