David O. Russell’s best movies — The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle — are stuffed to the gills with dreamers, go-getters, screw-ups and oddballs. When a director this gifted and big-hearted stubs his toe, you hope it’s because his reach exceeded his grasp. But along comes Joy and, argue all you want, that’s just not the case.
The movie marks Russell’s third consecutive outing with Jennifer Lawrence and, once again, she’s sensational, powering up every scene. Lawrence plays Joy Mangano, the real-life single mother who became a TV sensation for saving housewives from waxy yellow buildup by inventing the no-hands Miracle Mop, a game changer on the then-new QVC. She becomes the protégée of QVC honcho Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper, in a shrug of a performance), who fancies himself a Svengali-like film studio mogul of the David O. Selznick variety. Joy’s story has all the makings of a fantastic American Dream story that extols the joys of harnessing one’s creativity and going pedal-to-the-metal on empowerment.
We see Lawrence putting up with a wacky, demanding extended family. Aside from having her own kid to deal with, she’s got her womanizing dad (Robert DeNiro) and her layabout, aspiring singer ex (Edgar Ramirez) awkwardly sharing the basement of her home. Upstairs, her zoned-out neurotic mother (Virginia Madsen) lives vicariously through soaps, her grandmother (Diane Ladd) thinks she hung the moon and her combative half-sister (Elisabeth Rohm) lurks around the place ready to spring at any moment.
The original screenplay by Annie Mumolo (Bridesmaids) stayed along the lines of straight biopic, which could have been great, but Russell was after something different. (Mumolo and Russell share story credit, while Russell gets solo screenplay credit). What we’re left with is a frustrating movie. On the downside, it’s filled with bad narration, shaky exposition and characters who feel about as real as the on-air personalities who hawk junk on home shopping channels. On the plus side, the film has soul, boundless chaotic energy, heartfelt sincerity and laughs that sting. Above all, it has the starry Lawrence, who puts the joy and pathos right up front where it counts.