In 'Joy,' Hollywood Lets Entrepreneurship Smile

Hollywood likes business antiheroes, but "Joy" makes ambition seem nice.

Joy Mangano.

Photographer: Monica Schipper/Getty Images

In the movies, an entrepreneur is more likely to be a super-villain, or at the very least a mobster, than someone who builds a significant enterprise without getting anyone killed. Even the non-murderers are miserable jerks. Take Aaron Sorkin’s angry, status-obsessed Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network or his Steve Jobs in the abysmal recent movie by that name.

So it might be a surprise to discover a big-budget, award-friendly new film telling a tale of entrepreneurial ingenuity where the protagonist is heroic and the ending is happy. Except that in this case the entrepreneur is a woman. Her gender makes self-assertion, ambition, and even a touch of ruthlessness unconventional and therefore culturally acceptable.

The movie is “Joy,” starring Jennifer Lawrence as the eponymous inventor of a self-wringing “mop of the future.” Written and directed by David O. Russell (“American Hustle,” “Silver Linings Playbook”), the film declares itself: “Inspired by the true stories of daring women. One in particular.” The one is Joy Mangano, whose Miracle Mop and other household inventions made her a multimillionaire thanks to the advent of home-shopping television.

Judging from the previews that accompanied the showing I went to in Los Angeles, distributors see “Joy” as a chick flick with family values. The marketing is understandable. The story is female-friendly, and both Lawrence and Mangano lend themselves to women-oriented media interviews. You start with the obvious audience and build from there.

But “Joy” is more than a wholesome paean to girl power. It’s a portrait of entrepreneurial gumption, with a protagonist whose journey is as relevant to men as to women. On her way to fame and fortune, Joy must reawaken the creative spark dampened by her dysfunctional family, solve practical business problems of financing and distribution, confront her self-doubts, find her persuasive sales voice, and subdue adversaries who take advantage of her inexperience and trust. These aren’t uniquely female challenges.

“I think there was this studio mentality for a long time that women and girls can relate to a male hero, but boys and men can’t relate to a female hero. But that’s simply not true,” Lawrence said in a recent Glamour interview. She was talking about “The Hunger Games.” She could have been talking about “Joy.”

With a blue-collar protagonist who takes a second mortgage on her house, “Joy” is a quirky but unabashed affirmation of the entrepreneurial American dream, not just for Harvard dropouts with coding skills but for everyday people with bright ideas. Giving Joy a tour of his studio, QVC executive Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper) explains his philosophy with Old Hollywood examples: “David Selznick, the son of immigrants, married Jennifer Jones from Oklahoma, America’s sweetheart,” he says. “It just goes to show you that, in America, the ordinary meets the extraordinary every single day.”

The contrast to “The Social Network” is telling. Both Joy and Zuckerberg see things others miss. Both have to fight for their ideas. Both get, and largely ignore, bad advice from people who seem to know “business.” Both spend a lot of time in legal disputes.

But “Joy” celebrates creativity without credentials. It acknowledges both extraordinary gifts and ordinary life. While Sorkin’s Zuckerberg shows contempt for anyone who doesn’t match his formidable intellect, Joy treats everyone with respect. “Even if I was a cleaning lady, so what?” she tells her young daughter when a playmate teases the girl about the so-far unsuccessful mop. “There’s no shame in hard work.”

When Walker questions Joy’s determination to represent her own product on the air, telling her that QVC uses only celebrities and spokesmodels, not regular people, she spits his own idealism back at him:

You said to me that David Selznick, the son of immigrants, married Jennifer Jones, an all-American girl from Oklahoma, because in America all races and all classes can meet and make whatever opportunities they can, and that is what you feel -- you reach into people’s homes with what you sell. You said that.

She wins the argument.

The respect extends to products and customers. “Joy” acknowledges the wealth-creating value of incremental improvements even in the most mundane items.

“Skinny velvet hangers to make neater closets. That’s a big deal to a lot of people. I mean, who thinks of things like that? Joy did,” says the voiceover of her grandmother near the movie’s close. (The real Joy Mangano’s Huggable Hangers have sold more than 631 million units, including some hanging in my own home.)

Most of all, however, “Joy” makes its protagonist an untragic hero. She gets tough and she gets rich, but she winds up neither lonely nor mean.

Audiences embraced Sorkin’s compelling but dark fable of the friendless tycoon as if it were a much sunnier story. The real-world triumph of Facebook overpowered the fictional desolation of "The Social Network."

“Watching this movie makes you want to run from the theatre, grab your laptop and build your own empire,” wrote one moviegoer. If Hollywood won’t give people an inspiring movie about big-time entrepreneurship, audiences will imagine their own version.

But now they can see the real thing. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales did, and this was his enthusiastic reaction.

The big question is whether “Joy” can win an audience. Opening on Christmas Day, the movie has already grossed domestically more than the season’s buzzier and far more jaundiced business flick “The Big Short,” which had a two-week head start: $41.3 million, as of Jan. 6, versus $35.8 million. That’s a good start. But to really succeed, “Joy” has to break out of the sisterhood ghetto and demonstrate that Lawrence has again created a heroine male moviegoers can believe in.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.