Film Review: Joy

David O. Russell’s latest Jennifer Lawrence-Bradley Cooper collaboration, an inspirational and seriocomic semi-true saga about the inventor of the Miracle Mop, has energy to spare and a cast to die for but is nearly undone by a ramshackle last act.
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It makes a kind of post-millennial sense that the closest thing American film has had to a Horatio Alger story in recent years utilizes the QVC home-shopping cable channel as its protagonist’s rattly springboard to wealth. Director and writer David O. Russell’s newest ode to the multifaceted pluck of Jennifer Lawrence, Joy announces right off that it is “inspired by true stories of daring women.” Between that message and a bait-and-switch trailer, hyped up with a glowering Robert De Niro and shots of Lawrence blasting away with a shotgun, audiences may settle in thinking they’re about to be swept away by another American Hustle-like story of nervy outsiders working the system. But really, the film is about a mop.

Not just any mop, mind you. We’re talking about the Miracle Mop. Russell’s script is mostly a gloss on the life story of Joy Mangano. She went from housewife to multi-multi-millionaire after inventing a self-wringing mop and flogging it on QVC. Russell starts with some well-known anecdotes of Mangano’s tale, and loops it with garlands of his trademark ensemble family chaos. It’s a combination that should build through trial and struggle to a fireworks blossom of hard-fought success. Between the flailing script and uneven tone, not to mention a tone that continually promises greater payoff than the meager drama is capable of, the film never follows through on an impressive sales pitch.

The centerpiece of that sales pitch is Lawrence, who follows through on every front. Her Joy is a housewife juggling two kids and a raggedly incompetent gang of a family who rely on her as den mother, referee, accountant and repairwoman. The film’s restless and buzzy first third satisfies mostly from tracking Joy balancing her need to be responsible and keep the lights on while still nurturing the realization that she needs something more. After playing riffs on mania in Russell’s last two films, Lawrence here digs down into a fully grounded character surrounded by dreamers and schemers. The performance is confident, not at all showy, and completely riveting. It’s her best work since Winter’s Bone.

Russell’s screenplay at first gives Lawrence a solid stage on which to stand. She is centered in her familial hurly-burly, triangulated between her divorced husband Tony (Édgar Ramírez) and once-again-single dad Rudy (De Niro) bickering in their basement bivouac, her soap-opera-addicted mother Carrie (Virginia Madsen), and her supportive grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd). Joy’s life is a lament of thwarted dreams; “What happened to us?” she grouses to her childhood friend Jackie (Dascha Polanco) in a rare moment of vulnerability. Frequent pep talks from Mimi, who also provides the gauzy fairytale narration that doesn’t do the film any favors, only deepen Joy’s depression. That is, until Joy goes for broke with her invention, which will involve throwing herself into debt and giving her family doubters more reasons to try to keep her in her proper place: as their unpaid servant.

Now, the invention of the Miracle Mop and the history of cable home shopping can’t compare to the Abscam plot that powered American Hustle. But Russell deserves credit for trying to locate the epic, feminist drama in this dream-fulfilling story of empowerment. As a film, though, Joy never gets there. After Joy sets her mind to manufacturing her mop, with a loan from Rudy’s new girlfriend Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), and then marketing it, instead of building drama through stages of conflict, the film’s single-minded nature turns repetitive. Also, there is just so much drama to be wrung out of negotiating with suppliers over the cost of parts.

Time after time, Joy meets a challenge and triumphs; it doesn’t take long for that repetition and a never-materializing promise of greater drama to suck the air out of the film. Not helping matters is Russell’s predilection for overheated dialogue that strains for the grandiosity favored by the soap operas murmuring in the background and echoed in appearances by daytime actresses like Susan Lucci. When Mimi implores Joy to become “the successful matriarch you were born to be,” the level of tongue-in-cheek intention is unclear.

Russell also sets a trap for himself early on by creating too many engaging characters and then abandoning them once Joy hits the QVC stage and comes under the tutelage of a strangely flat and beside-the-point Bradley Cooper. After a spry and salty performance in the more rambunctious opening scenes, De Niro is left muttering variations on “You gotta do it” as he, Trudy, and Joy’s competitive half-sister Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm) trap Joy with rounds of horrible business advice. An adorable meet-cute between Joy and Tony that climaxes in a snow-glittered musical number goes nowhere, while Madsen’s deliciously loopy yet serene TV-zombie deadpan deserves its own series.

Joy has a lot going for it, particularly Lawrence’s striving and hard-fought gleam. But a reductive script, plus Russell’s decision to end the film with a copout of a voiceover after a drama-free third act which was just promising to get interesting again, leaves it marooned somewhere just shy of the unlikely inspirational biopic that could have been. 

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