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The Joy of Creation

February 29, 2016

Jennifer Lawrence may not have won the Academy Award for Best Actress, but her portrayal of businesswoman Joy Mangano in David O. Russell’s film Joy was one of the outstanding performances of 2015.  Lawrence portrays Mangano with all of the affection and honor that other movies reserve for poets or soldiers. Given how rarely Hollywood honors the “bourgeois virtues,” this is an outstanding achievement, whatever the film’s other flaws.

Those flaws mainly take the form of extraneous matter, particularly its ineffectual efforts at screwball comedy and supporting characters who, however faithfully rendered, are tangential and distracting. Against such a background, Lawrence’s performance leaps out like a bas relief sculpture. The N.Y. Times’ A.O. Scott put it well: the supporting characters seem like “grotesques who might have wandered out of a Roald Dahl novel.” But Joy herself is different. She is shown as a small miracle: the kind of miracle that happens every day in a magical land of opportunity and vision. What gives the movie its power is this energy, this certain slant of light that gives not death, but life. It is the magic of creation, and it is to Russell’s credit that he doesn’t just mention or dramatize it, but gives it to us with all the lyricism of which he is capable.

Joy makes an interesting comparison with another of the exceedingly rare instances in which Hollywood has chosen to celebrate the businessman, 1954’s Executive Suite, except that Jennifer Lawrence’s character is…well, perhaps the best word is feminine. In the earlier movie, the main character is Don Walling, the vice-president of a furniture company who believes so strongly in the integrity of his products that he strives to rescue the firm from the owner’s blasé heirs. He’s driven by his vision of the ultimate product, as something that, in an effective masculine metaphor, he can be proud to have his name on (a line from William Holden’s climactic speech). Joy, on the other hand, is a creator, and she strives to build a life—to create a new thing that, without her, would not exist at all. This fact is beautifully underscored by one scene without dialogue, in which Lawrence peers through a Christmas display window over which artificial snow is falling. We sense that here is a wholly artificial, man-made (woman-made) world, now available to us, exclusively on account of the perseverance and vision of this unique individual. The owner of that store, like Lawrence’s character, has created a space for joy.

That is the singular feeling that gives so much light to the best parts of Joy. In its most powerful sequence, Lawrence’s character meets with QVC executive Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper) who explains to her in passionate detail just how massive an opportunity the meeting really offers her, as an unknown entrepreneur. If her newly-invented mop is accepted for sale on the shopping channel, she stands to sell 50,000 units, and to become an overnight success. It will be only the beginning of her hard work, but it will be the first motion toward the new world she dreams of. Such a scene might have proven fairly ordinary, except that David Russell films it with a loving, romantic quality, and does not let up. Russell has said that the film is about “living a fairy tale,” and the movie gives to moments like this a fairy tale feeling, that sweeps Joy and the audience along with a gentle but unmistakable power. Most movies can do this only with giant CG armies arrayed for battle, or musclemen screaming “We are Spartans!” Others must always smuggle in some element of snarky self-betrayal under the badge of “irony.” Not here. This film gives us its miracle straight. With sincerity comes vulnerability, which is why so many directors are afraid of it. But only with sincerity do we see true beauty. That Russell gives us so much sincerity in a movie about a woman who invented a mop is a testament of its own kind.

But of course it’s not about the mop. It’s about the creator. In one scene, we see Joy taking command of a small but devoted group of workers, offering them jobs and opportunities they would not otherwise have had. In others we see Joy confronting the corrupt contractors who conspire to rob her of her creation, and the jealous and meddling family members who try to sabotage her efforts. Throughout it all, Joy is driven by an energy that seems to come from nowhere except from her own creativity, and that creativity is the only real energy in her world. Almost everything else in the movie depends upon it, or sits like a vulture waiting to feed off its morbidity. Only Joy creates. She alone gives life to lifeless things.

Here, of course, one thinks of Ayn Rand, who sarcastically nicknamed one of her characters, a banker, “Midas.” John Chamberlain was one of the few critics to spot Rand’s irony. The Midas of legend was cursed because everything he touched turned to lifeless gold. But the banker, the creator, the entrepreneur, the capitalist, do the opposite: they have the “faculty for changing unsentient metal into glorious growth.” When we speak of wealth creation, we should always keep in mind that we mean that phrase with the utmost literalness. The wealth creator does not merely rearrange raw materials and sell the result at a markup. She makes something unique that never existed at all before her. She does what in a physicist’s sense is impossible: true creation ex nihilo. That such a thing ever occurs is, compared to most of humanity’s violent and meaningless history, a mind-boggling fact. That such things are the source of all progress is simply staggering. That we have a culture and a nation in which such things are not merely possible, but rewarded, is too precious a thing to let go unsaid. In America, said Tocqueville, all honest callings are honorable. I have seen too few films that celebrate this seemingly humble fact as it deserves. Without it, life would be bleakness itself.

If life is a kind of fire, a special state of matter that creates itself out of a lifeless background, then we see the circle come to completion in the concluding scene, when Joy, now wealthy and sophisticated, listens to a product pitch from a young and idealistic inventor and her husband. “I know how it feels,” she tells them, when they are overjoyed at her approval. She does, indeed, as few others could. She is not Cinderella, who waited for someone else to take her off to a better life. She is, at least in this respect, the author of her own fairy tale.

Joy is not a philosophical film, and it includes clumsy comedic elements that distract from the pearl at its center. But Jennifer Lawrence’s character is rendered in such good faith, with so much undisguised admiration, with such an unashamed appeal to the values of freedom and opportunity, that it stands out like a torch. It makes you long for a world in which everyone saw and celebrated this little miracle: this joy of creation.


This piece is adapted from an article forthcoming in Reason Papers



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