Saturday, October 15, 2016

A Woman Under the Influence

If we accept the idea that, deep down, all American movies are stories of consumerist wish fulfillment, then the rags-to-riches genre could be the great Hollywood meta-narrative, the fantasy that undergirds all the others. These films perform that fundamental Hollywood promise: If we can simply tap into our reserves of indomitable brilliance, we can transcend our daily lives and enter a utopia of romance and wealth and, well, happiness. If this unlikely but lovable hero can beat the odds through sheer grit and charisma, the dream whispers, then so can you. David O. Russell, once an indie idiosyncrat, has lately been taking a tour of the venerable old-Hollywood genres. He's made his sports movie (The Fighter), his rom-com (Silver Linings Playbook) and his prestige picture (American Hustle); it shouldn't surprise us that rags-to-riches is next.

On its face, Joy hews closely to the conventions of the genre. Jennifer Lawrence is a deeply harried divorcee and working mom struggling to hold a dysfunctional family together. Her mother Terry (Virginia Madsen) is an agoraphobic, silk nightgowned diva who spends her time in bed, almost fully absorbed in a "Dynasty"-ish nighttime soap opera. Joy's ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez), an under-employed nightclub singer, lives in her basement, as does her father, a volatile, paternalistic ("colorful" might be the euphemism) Robert de Niro type, played by Robert de Niro. Also in Joy's orbit are Peggy, the resentful half-sister, Trudy, the miserly stepmother, played with majestic, alien witchery by Isabella Rossellini (as if she could do it any other way) and children doing their childlike things. This family bickers in the screwballish, hyper-verbal way that we have come to expect from Russell's families. And all of this energy--the complaints, the grievances, the stream of expectation and demand--converges on Joy. She is the only adult in the room, the family's provider, mediator and problem-solver.

We learn in a series of dreamy flashbacks narrated by Joy's grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd) that Joy was a touched child. She was the valedictorian of her class; she crafted deeply realized imaginary worlds; she had a gift for invention and ingenuity. Nevertheless, Mimi's dreams for Joy never stray too far from the domestic: "You are going to be a smart, strong young woman," she tells the young Joy, "go to school, meet a fine young man, have beautiful children of your own and you're gonna build wonderful things that you do in your room."[sic]

But that dream of domestic ease (it must simply be a dream of wealth--how else could working motherhood come off so pastorally?) has been lost in the struggle to survive. Joy has been thoroughly ensnared in the demands of lower-middle-class family life. Her gifts and potential seem to have gone unrealized. Unrealized, that is, until, in a burst of inspiration, she invents the miracle mop. Using every ounce of her charisma and moxie, she charms a powerful QVC executive named Neil Walker (played by Bradley Cooper, Lawrence's old foil) into giving her and her mop a shot. Despite her family's poisonously low expectations, despite the burdens of debt and trademark law, despite daunting economies of scale and the ruthlessness of her competitors, not to mention a gnarly case of stage fright, Joy rises to fame and fortune, a trailblazer for other housewife/entrepreneurs after her.

Call it optimism or call it conservatism, but rags-to-riches films have typically displayed a credulous faith in American social mobility. And Joy, on the surface at least, is no different. It is a fable attesting to the transcendant power of entrepreneurial talent, a paean to the domestic and an allegory of spiritual-capitalist predestination.

Seems pretty straightforward. But what's strange is that while the the film's last act, in which our hero triumphantly overcomes the odds etc, is essentially a cobbled together mess of deuses-ex-machina and miraculous reversals of fortune, Russell invests the full freight of his cinematic ingenuity in depicting Joy's domestic confinement. He intertwines memory and present-day reality within the same spatial-temporal plane. The camera pans from scenes of Joy's childhood to the present day. The former provides commentary on the latter, pointing out the contrast between her youthful promise and the perpetual crisis that is her adult life. The border between them is fluid, as if to illustrate the ease with which youth slides into adulthood, with which possibilities become foreclosed. And the comic surrealism of Joy's present day is vintage Russell. Joy's house rings with the noise of needy children and bickering grown-ups--while, all the while, Terry lounges queenlike (though utterly dependent on Joy), her soap-operatic fantasy world endlessly streaming from the TV. The space is a little too small and ramshackle for the emotional and physical chaos it contains. The scene plays as comedy but it is a comedy that reverberates with anxiety--in this case, the anxiety produced by surfeits of energy and money and time, by the all-too-familiar overwhelm of domestic life.

The whole tableau trembles with a kind of madcap surreality. When Terri's compulsive hair-brushing results in a clogged pipe, Joy brusquely rips a hole in the floor and begins pounding away, water spraying everywhere, even as her family's noise continues unabated. It's as if the architecture of Joy's life were crumbling away, as if reality had become a farce. It's a perfect illustration of what Lauren Berlant calls "crisis ordinariness," that condition of perpetual economic and social precarity so endemic to contemporary everyday life. It is what happens "when the ordinary becomes a landfill for overwhelming and impending crises of life-building and expectation whose sheer volume so threatens what it has meant to 'have a life' that adjustment seems like an accomplishment."

Given all of this, it's hard not to see Joy's appearances on QVC, like Terry's soap opera, as simply another mediated dream. Joy stands on a rotating soundstage outfitted to project a fantasy of order, cleanliness and domestic beauty. She is selling a mop, but the floor is already sparkling and spotless. There are no kids, no bickering adults, no holes in the floor. It is silent, save for the pacifying muzak and the music of Joy's deep, Long Island rasp. Sure, Joy rejects the costume department's glamorizing outfits in favor of her own uniform of a button-down blouse and slacks. But this only contributes to the fantasy of earthy comfort. How easy life could be in this kitchen with this mop! The charm and luxury it could provide!  The divergence of this fantasy from Joy's home life seems to reveal it as another false promise, just another ode to consumption--not to mention female domestic labor--as a means to happiness. That Joy is attempting to realize her dream of the good life from within the conditions of her own confinement, that she is doubling down on a fantasy that has already proven bankrupt, is an irony that the film passes over in silence.

This irony is made darker and more salient by the speed and violence with which Joy's entrepreneurial dream comes crashing down around her. In the film's most savage scene, Joy's family confronts her with the news that, despite her mop's success, bad legal advice has made bankruptcy inevitable. "It's my fault," says her father. "I gave her the confidence to think that she was more than just an unemployed housewife selling plastic kitchen stuff to other unemployed housewives on a junk cable channel...It was my mistake to make me think that she was more than she was." The moment seems to refute the possibility of class mobility and economic hope and even the very idea of a woman aspiring to more than domestic servitude. With her father, her lawyers, and the now-ghoulish Trudy looming over her, Joy signs her business away. She turns to her young daughter and calmly rebukes her for holding fast to Mimi's fantasy. "The world does not give you opportunities," she says. "It destroys your opportunities. And it breaks your heart."

Which makes the film's final act even stranger and more unbelievable. In a stirring research montage (fundamental elements include: protagonist in glasses gasping epiphanically over a crucial document), Joy discovers a fraud perpetrated by one of her creditors. She flies to Dallas to confront him, unleashes a torrent of wit and emerges victorious, contract in hand, her capitalist destiny restored. Flash forward to a quick montage of Joy as the scion of an empire, shrewdly cutting deals, luxuriating in that realized dream of wealthy, tranquil domesticity and doling out opportunities to other harried moms with good ideas. Roll credits.

Suffice it to say, this smacks of narrative desperation. The sudden, frankly incredible stroke of fortune only reveals the story's basic unbelievability. Because Joy's situation is impossible. And in its impossibility, it powerfully depicts the forces arrayed against a working woman's hope for economic advancement--forces of time and space and economy and patriarchal expectation. Only a kind of genius, a woman touched with almost supernatural (or cinematic) gifts of ingenuity, charisma and verbal dexterity could possibly overcome these odds. The fact that the story is based on the life of an actual, living person does not make this observation any less true. Indeed, in the magic of the ending, the film almost acknowledges the preposterousness of the story it wants to tell: the story of the virtuous, self-made woman, the benevolent meritocrat.

In many ways, American Hustle is another telling of this very story. Like Joy, it depicts the way in which survival on capitalism's margins requires ingenious verbal performance and a kind of fantastical self-reinvention. But in American Hustle that self-reinvention becomes outright self-deception. In that version of the story, those margins are morally chaotic; navigating them entails a massive compromise of personal integrity. American Hustle seemed to be indicting capitalism for its inherent tendency toward corruption and moral distortion. In this light, Joy's story of virtuous self-advancement seems all the more naive. Despite the two films' similarities, Joy seems exactly like the kind of yarn that American Hustle was created to repudiate.

"Why," Berlant wonders, "do people stay attached to conventional good-life fantasies--say, of enduring reciprocity in couples, families, political systems, institutions, markets, and at work--when the evidence of their instability, fragility, and dear cost abounds?" Joy presents that very evidence and yet is unable to resist the fantasy's allure. The film redoubles its investment in a failed economy and in a vision of domestic enchantment demonstrably alien from anything resembling real life. Indeed, Russell's own work has put the lie to this very fantasy. One wonders: Why is he telling this story?

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