Joy, David O. Russell, 2015
“The world does not give you opportunities. The world destroys your opportunities, and it breaks your heart.”
A resurfacing theme of some of David O. Russell’s recent films has been the importance placed on family. Inter-generational relationships play out with tension and light humour, showing us how no matter the generation, we cannot escape the ghosts of our ancestors. In his latest film, Joy, family spectres similarly provide a shadowy reminder of the regularity of life.
Joy’s eponymous protagonist, played by Jennifer Lawrence, is a mother, daughter, ex-wife and granddaughter to the surrounding cast of characters that live in her home. But she is also an individual. The opening of the film defines her as an “Other”, an object to the worries of those around her; a constant bit part in all of their dramas, but through flashbacks it becomes clear that this is not the destiny she dreamed for herself.
The film is narrated by Joy’s grandmother, Mimi (Diane Ladd), who recognises a spark in her creative granddaughter. Mimi sees that Joy can do something great with her life, but even she does not allow Joy to become a true individual, instead willing her to get married, produce children, and become a “powerful matriarch”. And so she does.
But Joy yearns for something more. Every day she repeats the same cycle, supporting her children, her divorced parents – shut-in mother Terri (Virginia Madsen) and serial dating father Rudy (Robert De Niro) – and her dive bar singer ex-husband Tony (Édgar Ramírez). Every day she is forced to clear up their messes and pander to their whims, never fully realising her own independence.
So many of our lives seem this way, and this creates a powerful dilemma, as recognised by Albert Camus in the Myth of Sisyphus. If our lives are just meaningless repetitions in which we make no real impact on the world, culminating in death or passage of our purpose to our offspring, then what really is the point?
Camus reminds us of the ancient Greek myth of the punished Sisyphus, who disobeyed the gods, and was punished by having to roll a boulder up a hill for all eternity. With great exertion and struggle, he would reach the top of the mountain only for the boulder to roll straight back down the hill again, starting Sisyphus’ job all over again.
Camus asks us to consider Sisyphus’ thoughts on descending the hill. The task he is attempting is so ultimately futile, that it is only natural that he starts to feel that his life is meaningless in the face of an uncaring world.
Joy’s lot is a similar one. She attempts to make something meaningful in her life by becoming an inventor of a self-draining mop, only for her to face continuous hurdles in trying to make her invention mean something. As things start to look up, and she starts to achieve things, factors outside of her control plunge her life back into chaos. Just as her head is above water, the random rip currents of life drag her back under.
A pertinent metaphor in the film is that of the life cycle of cicadas. Joy remarks that cicadas, in spending 17 years underground, are doing something that she sees as “unsettling”. Cicadas’ life spans are so short, and achieve so little except reproduction and continuing the cycle, that there is a sense of the absurd in it. It is worth noting as well, that once the cicadas have mated, the male dies and the female is left alone to raise the children on her own.
As Joy battles against circumstance, she takes further and further steps into her own radical freedom, just as Camus and the Existentialists suggest we all should. At one point, a business rival suggests that he thought Joy would have killed herself, but instead of taking this coward’s way out, she keeps fighting.
Camus, as well, talks of suicide. He recognises that, in the face of the absurdity of an uncaring world, we have two choices. To express our freedom to choose by committing suicide (which is ultimately just another futile gesture), or to fully embrace the absurdity of our lives. It seems that Joy chooses the latter.
Regardless of how much of a difficult hand she is dealt, Joy chooses to keep playing it. Even at the end of the film, when it seems that she has finally achieved some success in her life, it transpires that her own father and half-sister have tried to sue her for ownership of her successful business. Yet she sticks with them, showing another expression of her radical freedom, choosing to forgive rather than holding a petty grudge.
Herein lies the positive outlook of the film. That even though, like Sisyphus and the cicadas, the world will never care for us, we can still find some happiness in taking ownership of our lives and living as free humans. The secret to Joy, it seems, is freedom.