Breaking the Glass Slipper
What does the term "based on a true story" mean? It, by its very words, seems to be an oxymoron—true, but fabricated and embroidered, not The Truth, but merely "based." It is extremely rare when a film follows a transcript (and even then, words can be changed in intent by performance and intonation). In most cases, "true" stories imagine conversations never heard, futz with the timeline to drive home a comparison, or combine many characters into one to simplify and amplify. But, what does it do to that true story?
Take The Revenant: Alejandro Iñárritu's film takes the wilderness travails of Hugh Glass and turns them into nothing like how the story played out. The main characters have different fates than the true-life counterparts; in fact, Glass was the first to die of the four main characters, rather than the lone survivor. The Revenant is only "inspired by true events," but only some true events, the rest is fabrication or, more kindly, "inspiration." In the case of The Revenant, it turns the true events and turns them not into a story of survival, but of revenge at all costs, the survival being wrapped up in the need to seek vengeance. In doing so, it subverts the story into something quite unrelated to the spirit of the story.
Is there a word that means the opposite of "inspired?"
Now, take Joy. Joy is a remarkably chilly film about mops. And opportunism. And capitalism. And being your own person and taking control of your life.
That it's based (partially and refracted through writer-director David O. Russell's sensibilities) on a real person, Joy Mangano, and her quite visible success—if you watch HSN—only makes it that much more interesting. And it makes a case for not being faithful to the story, thus making it a better film for what it does say about that person. Russell makes no bones that Joy is only partially based on Mangano's life...and, as he says, other strong women he has known. But, he has also delved into folklore, managing to disguise his intent while leaving bread-crumbs to its source, masking it with a very real person, and creating what is essentially a modern fairy-tale. One that actually happened.
The film starts in a soap opera with invented characters and invented drama, where the stakes are high and exaggerated. Watching the soap is Joy's mom (Virginia Madsen, so de-glammed she looks like she's auditioning for "The Terri Garr Story"). She sits in her bedroom all day escaping drama by watching drama. Daughter Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) is trying to get ready for work as an airline counter-person, but is searching for something in the disorganized closet, and instead finds a breakaway dog collar she invented in her teens, after she nearly choked her dog taking it for a walk. Now, somebody else is selling such an item because nobody in the family wanted to spend the money on a patent for it. Anyway, she's late for work. But before she can get out the door, her father Rudy (Robert De Niro) shows up. His current girlfriend has kicked him out, so he's coming back there to live. Seems to be the place for it, as Joy's own ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez) is living in the basement until he can get on his feet, which doesn't appear to be anytime soon.
Joy's step-sister stops by to take care of her kids—she's also the book-keeper for her Dad's auto-shop—and also run her down to her kids. The only one who seems to be Joy's sole joy and comfort is her grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd) who encourages Joy and keeps reminding her that she is destined for greatness.
But, not at that job. The customers (as they can be) are jerks and management has decided that they're going to move Joy to the night-shift, which is impossible given her family. Rudy starts dating another woman, Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), a widow with loads of money, which is a plus. She's also something of a bull-dog, with a flighty disposition, turning on a dime, except to Joy, who she treats with contempt, probably because she sees her as the weakest link in a pack of voracious wolves.
This is a bad life. Joy's an enabler, the responsible one in a family of the irresponsible. And for her to get out of this cycle, she must go deeper into her persona and become an enabler of the world. With the inspiration of her grandmother, and her own need to improve her life, she creates a home invention for the downtrodden of the world—those who pick up after others. Necessity is, after all, a mother.
A lot of this is true. A lot of it is complete fabrication. Joy Mangano did become a huge success, as the movie has it, despite the attempts by all sides to bring her down, the competent one in a family of incompetents who see the short term and have no vision of the big picture. It makes you wonder what Russell is doing steering so far from the truth. I did wonder...until I found out one simple fact—the real Joy didn't have a step-sister.
Step-sister? Why would you put in a step-sister if one didn't exist? Why would you stack the odds so far in Joy's detriment in order to make her triumph that much sweeter? Why would you make her life so bad?
Because it is, in fact, Grimm. The Brothers Grimm, that is. Well, not in fact, but in metaphor. Russell has taken the true story of Joy Mangano and turned it into a literal modern-day Cinderella story by combining it with the "persecuted heroine" story of Cinderella, with its oppressive relations (save for a mentor once removed), but taking the Prince Charming aspect of it and showing how that could become a nightmare. Instead, this Cinderella doesn't find her joy in dependency (been there, surrounded by that), but independence and the handsome prince of industry (Bradley Cooper) is not a romantic interest, but a good contact, and where she finds her bliss (and her heart's desire) is in an opulent ballroom of television technology at QVC that does its own circular dancing.
Based on a true story? Not so much. True, but told through the fairy-tale consciousness in order to prove a larger point, and maybe make a more inspirational story than getting ahead by throwing a shoe. Joy has something running through its veins that a lot of movies don't have and could use: moxie.
Joy Mangano...in action