124 min., rated PG-13.
"Joy" is inspired by the true stories of daring women, particularly one Joy Mangano who invented the Miracle Mop and would go on to build her own empire. It's the third collaboration between writer-director David O. Russell and Jennifer Lawrence (as well as Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro) after 2012's "Silver Linings Playbook" and 2013's "American Hustle" but can't really be compared to those other films. While not a complete success, the film is a winning, offbeat mess of sorts. Based on a story he wrote with Annie Mumolo (2011's "Bridesmaids"), Russell's screenplay is a semi-fictionalized biopic, playing fast and loose with the truth, but more of an unusual Cinderella story with her mop rather than a prince. Putting another feather in her cap, Lawrence's solidly mature performance holds together the shambling parts of "Joy."
Bright and full of ideas since she was a child, Joy (Lawrence) has put her dreams on hold to take care of everyone else in her life. She lives at home with her two children, grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd), and mother Terry (Virginia Madsen), who wastes away watching soap operas on TV in bed. Her Brazilian ex-husband, Tony (Edgar Ramirez), has moved to the basement and soon joined by Joy's temperamental father, Rudy (Robert De Niro), who's been kicked out by his second wife. Taking care of the in-house plumbing and doing the books for her dad's auto body business with her bitter half-sister Peggy (Elizabeth Röhm), Joy finally comes up with a manufacturing idea after plans of patenting her inventions have all turned into non-starters. She comes up with a prototype for a self-wringing mop, and with the financial support of Rudy's loaded new girlfriend Trudy (Isabella Rossellini) and Tony's connections, she gets an interview at home shopping network QVC with slick manager Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper). Successful sales won't happen overnight, but Joy's mop could take her to the top.
As director David O. Russell's films tend to be high-wire acts that could collapse any minute in tone or structure but rarely do, "Joy" might have a few too many screws loose on the onset to really gel. It's rather apropos that the film opens with a sequence from a tacky "Dynasty"-esque soap opera (starring Susan Lucci, Maurice Benard and Laura Wright)—and a very spot-on one at that—because, thereafter, the film's rocky first twenty minutes is so forcefully broad and madcap all at once to take in Joy's wacky dysfunctional life. Once Joy writes up the plans for the mop in crayon and later pitches it to the men at QVC, the film finds its footing. The scenes at QVC are amusing to watch, with a gussied-up Joy sticking to her guns when it comes to how she's dressed on-camera and Melissa Rivers providing a startlingly canny appearance as her late mother Joan, a recurring on-air celebrity spokesperson. There's also a dreamy, whimsical flashback where Joy and Tony sing a duet of Frank and Nancy Sinatra's "Something Stupid" on stage.
Per usual, 25-year-0ld Jennifer Lawrence is wise beyond her years and sells the role of 35-year-old Joy with enough moxie and charisma for the whole cast. As strong and scrappy as Joy is written, Lawrence has no problem commanding every scene with resolve and personality, while traversing so many different notes to an arc from hapless divorced single mother to successful business woman. None of the supporting performances are poor, but many of the actors don't have much to do. Robert De Niro gets to be more manic than dynamic as Rudy; Edgar Ramirez is terrific as Tony, Joy's ex who still believes in her and ends up being the most supportive; and Isabella Rossellini is comically sharp in her scenes as Trudy. Also, Virginia Madsen is tragic and eventually endearing as Terry, Joy's housebound mother; Dascha Polanco (Netflix's "Orange Is the New Black") has delightful moments as Joy's supportive childhood friend Jackie; and Diane Ladd is a warm presence, but her part as Mimi relegates her fully to narrator duties. Finally, Bradley Cooper is his magnetic self as Neil Walker, whose partnership with Joy stays refreshingly professional. If one wants to see one film this year with Lawrence and the third-billed Cooper, make it "Joy" rather than "Serena," even if they're on screen together throughout in the latter.
If it hasn't already been figured out, the chief reason to see "Joy" is Jennifer Lawrence. Her performance resonates and enough memorable moments help smooth out some heavy-handedness—Joy giving herself a haircut is too much of a shorthand for growth and a cicada metaphor is very on-the-nose—and meandering detours in the unpolished script. Lawrence can't be improved, and "Joy" might improve upon more than one viewing. It's too wayward and disarming to dislike, and it certainly isn't ordinary, so that's a joy to see.
Grade: B -