Some movies are made for the big screen. Their stories, their characters, refuse to be resized for home viewing. Because these films are so big, we lose something watching them at home, no matter how comfortable the couch may be.

David O. Russell’s minor movie Joy, however, felt too small for a big theater when it opened at Christmas. This predictable tale of a woman who turns a home cleaning device into a symbol of personal redemption begs for the interruptions we experience in the comfort of the living room. Somehow its bumpy narratives beg for those commercial breaks to grab a soda or transition to a new plot device. While attempting to make this lady’s tale an illustration of human tenacity, Russell reminds us that the small screen may be the appropriate destination for a story we have seen so many times.

In a tailor-made role, the ever-so-likable Jennifer Lawrence uses each of her patented gestures and expressions to bring life to the cardboard character of a woman with dreams that reach beyond her surroundings. Although based on actual events, little in this little film actually plays real. We never quite believe the situations that Joy Mangano finds herself confronting. The family surrounding her feels too exaggerated to be believed; the rags-to-riches incidents become too coincidental to be absorbed; the wisdom of her grandmother (the great Diane Ladd) too familiar to be cherished. Instead of a thoughtful examination of a determined woman trying to make a difference – as in Erin Brockovich, a film that Russell tries to recreate – we experience a stilted series of situations lifted out of television sitcom. Perhaps that’s why the movie seems so much at home. A television set is where this story belongs.

To frame the narrative, Russell plays with the conventions of television soap opera (featuring a delicious cameo by drama queen Susan Lucci). As fun as this device may be, it only reminds us how small the story actually is. Russell never digs deeply enough into the conditions that inspire Mangano to see herself as more than the people around her; he fails to let Lawrence use her inspired theatrics to reveal what this woman needs, wants and believe. Instead the director places his favorite actress in one contrived set up after another including how she discovers the magic of the mop she uses to clean up a mess and uses her daughter’s crayons to inspire its design. Nothing rings true.

Only when Bradley Cooper arrives as a QVC executive does the movie come to life. Suddenly we see what fun the movie could have delivered as Russell explores the fantasy that television fame can create.

When Joy was released, Russell garnered attention for creating a film with a strong female character. And Lawrence easily grabbed another Oscar nomination. But the movie never worked on the big screen. Seen at home, we may be more patient about its gaps and exaggerations. Somehow its flaws are more endearing on a television screen. Maybe, when we watch on the home screen, we better tolerate a film’s failings. Or perhaps we are used to entertainments that feel small.

Rating: 3 Popcorn Buckets


  • Content: Medium. A woman’s journey to fame and fortune seems better suited for the small screen than when it first appeared in theaters.
  • Entertainment: Medium. Despite the natural appeal of Jennifer Lawrence, in a role tailor made to her personality, the film fails to reveal the woman she portrays.
  • Message: Medium. While the film tries to inspire with the real story of Joy Mangano, director David O. Russell lets down his heroine with a series of contrived situations.
  • Relevance: Medium. Any opportunity to share a film together can be meaningful family time. But there are better movies to watch as a family.
  • Opportunity for Dialogue: Medium. While there’s enough about the film to fill a short discussion, you’ll be talking about other things by the time you change the channel.

(Joy is rated PG-13 for “brief strong language.” The film runs 124 minutes.)

 Let’s Talk Movies: Films Made for the Small Screen

As David O. Russell demonstrates with Joy, some movies are made for the small screen, Even if they first appear in large movie houses. Don’t believe me? Check out some of these films – including some Oscar winners – that simply look best in our living rooms.

 Terms of Endearment (1983)

This classic Oscar winner from James L. Brooks – for which Shirley MacLaine finally won an Oscar – is worth seeing over and over. And, as good as it looked in theaters more than 30 years ago, it looks even better on the small screen. Perhaps Brooks’ examination of the multi-layered relationship between a powerful mother and her strong-willed daughter hits the right notes when viewed at home where bonds form. Or maybe the subtleties of MacLaine’s complex performance are best appreciated when our eyes can be that much closer to the screen. Regardless of the reason, Terms is a real treat no matter where it’s experienced, even if you have seen it many times before.

Steel Magnolias (1989)

Much like Terms, this story of the friendships between women works better on the small screen today than it did in theaters all those years ago, even though it was a big hit at the time. Perhaps, at home, we can more closely follow the nuance of the relationships as they change, or its easier to catch the subtleties of performance without the distractions of a crowd munching popcorn. No matter the reasons, this Herbert Ross film stands the test of repeated viewings by making us laugh (in the scenes featuring Shirley MacLaine, Dolly Parton and Olympia Dukakis) and inspiring us to cry (when Sally Field reminds us who is the real star of the film). This one works again and again.

Ordinary People (1980)

No one expected much from this movie when it opened. Its source material – a book by Judith Guest – was well reviewed but certainly not a best seller. And its cast – especially Mary Tyler Moore and Judd Hirsch – was primarily known for working in television. But the reason this Robert Redford Oscar winner works best on a home screen has nothing to do with the pedigree of its cast. Redford is so subtle a filmmaker, and his movie is so filled with meaning, that it takes a quiet setting to fully absorb the content. Perhaps Redford knew its ultimate power would best be served when closely watched. And maybe that’s why he keeps the camera so tightly focused on his powerful players.

On Golden Pond (1981)

No one besides Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn (both in Oscar-winning roles) could make the roles of Norman and Ethel Thayer so timeless in this lovely adaptation of the Broadway show. As moving as the film was when it played in theaters – and as successful at the box office – it watches better on the small screen because the intimacy of the performances matches the size of the screen. We feel we are there in the cabin in New Hampshire as this loving couple, perhaps, spends its last summer together. And, when we are home, watching them at home, the result is all the more meaninful.

Driving Miss Daisy (1989)

On stage, it played with a minimal set and a small cast of characters. And won the Pulitzer Prize. While the film version “opens up” the proceedings to make us feel we are really in Atlanta for all those years, the movie still plays better on a small screen where we can study the detail of the marvelous performances from Jessica Tandy (who won an Oscar) and Morgan Freeman (who was nominated) as an unlikely pair of friends in a society ill prepared for their friendship. While Patti Lupone plays to the balcony in her small role as a social-climbing matron, the real power of the film comes in the small moments that Tandy and Freeman create together.

How lucky we are to savor these movies on screens as small as a telephone, while offering entertainment as big as the widest screen.

See you at the movies.