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Reel Life VS. Real Life: Joy


Turns out the Miracle Mop wasn’t the only invention in this unconventional biopic...

“Inspired by the true stories of daring women,” the opening claim states...

The dedication that precedes the first moments of Joy is one big tipoff that David O. Russell’s recent movie is not a conventional Hollywood biopic of a public figure. In the case of the director’s third Oscar-nominated teaming with Jennifer Lawrence, that person is Joy Mangano, an inventor and entrepreneur familiar to any viewer of networks for home shoppers.

“Inspired by the true stories of daring women,” the opening claim states. “One in particular.” For a film to be “inspired by” rather than “based on” real events usually indicates that the screenwriter has enjoyed more than the usual degree of creative licence. In that respect, Joy is not so different from Born to Be Blue and Miles Ahead, two recent movies whose makers invented characters and events to concoct new angles on the well-known lives of jazz icons Chet Baker and Miles Davis.

But the other part of the claim mentioning “daring women” is more unusual. Exactly how much of Joy is supposed to be about the real woman it’s (almost) named after rather than these other ladies? Actually, the fact that Mangano’s surname is never uttered in Russell’s movie is telling. (Her most famous invention, the Miracle Mop, is referenced by its trademarked title just once.)

Even though Russell says he spent a hundred hours interviewing Mangano in the process of putting his stamp on a screenplay by Bridesmaids co-writer Annie Mumolo, he freely admits to integrating details from many other lives and concocting others for his version of Mangano’s story.

So what can we really learn about the bona fide mop queen? After applying our truth-meter to details in Joy, we have the answers.

Joy Mangano’s determination to succeed in business began when she invented a fluorescent pet collar as a teenager, only to see a similar product hit the market before she could patent it.

TRUE — Russell’s movie turns this strange-but-true detail into a major inciting moment in his drama. However, the would-be eureka moment behind the invention of the Miracle Mop in 1989 is rather more colourful and implausible. (For one thing, it now involves a yacht trip.)

Joy was a university dropout and divorced mom working low-paying jobs and living with her wildly dysfunctional family when she risked it all on a life-changing idea.

FUNDAMENTALLY TRUE (EXCEPT FOR A LOT OF IT) — No other parts of Joy bear Russell’s fingerprints as strongly as his portrayal of Mangano’s started-from-the-bottom beginnings and chaotic domestic situation. Rather than drop out of school to help her dad’s troubled mechanic business as Lawrence’s character does, the real Mangano completed a degree in business administration. Though she did work at an airline-reservations desk as the film suggests, Russell makes her more of an underdog by erasing evidence of her pre-existing business expertise. Meanwhile, many of the family details — including just about everything to do with the soap-opera-addicted, shut-in mother played by Virginia Madsen and the overly competitive half-sister played by Elisabeth Röhm — are purely Russell’s invention. The director seems determined to make this clan even more argumentative than the one in Silver Linings Playbook.

Though divorced from her husband (also the father of her two kids), Joy worked closely with her ex, who became a key figure in her business empire.

SOMEWHAT TRUE — Mangano and husband Anthony Miranne did have a remarkably amicable relationship after their divorce in 1989, with Miranne remaining a close friend and business partner. But Russell’s version of him has far more flash. Rather than a business-school classmate, he’s now a hunky Venezuelan musician played by Edgar Ramírez. They also had three kids but hey, who’s counting?

A visionary QVC executive named Neil Walker agreed to sell Joy’s mop on his network and gave her invaluable guidance about salesmanship.

FALSE — Given that Walker never existed — and probably wouldn’t have been as handsome as Bradley Cooper even if he had — this is better seen as a means for Russell to exploit the chemistry between his Silver Linings Playbook co-stars for the third time. Walker is really a composite of several TV execs and early business supporters.

Joy became her own on-air pitchwoman when a QVC host failed to spark sales in the mop’s first disastrous appearance.

TRUE — The film alters details about Mangano’s TV debut, but she truly did break the mold for infomercials (and possibly pave the way for reality TV) when her innate Everywoman appeal became her best possible sales tool.

An early battle over the mop’s patent nearly derailed Joy’s rise to wealth and fame.

FALSE (PROBABLY) — Nothing in Mangano’s business bio suggests she experienced anything like the troubles the movie uses to generate extra tension. To be fair, even Mangano’s biographer, Fergus Mason, says that she has been scrupulously private about her early life despite her immense public profile. Russell has intimated that she told him things she never told anyone else, so there might be little-known truths under all the fudging. But the bit about Joy cutting her hair right before a meeting that will decide her fate? That definitely seems like an excuse for J-Law to show off her bad-ass Katniss side.

Jason Anderson writes about movies for Cinema Scope, FFWD, and the Toronto Star.