Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro and David O. Russell join forces for the third time with “Joy,” a fact-based tale of a woman who realized the American Dream that fails to engender in viewers the emotion promised by the title. It’s likely to be this year’s “Big Eyes”—for those of you who remember Tim Burton’s flameout of last year’s Christmas season, which had a similar theme and an equally off-the-wall tone (and, incidentally, was the better film).
Joy Mangano (Lawrence) is depicted in Russell’s script as the quintessential put-upon Middle American woman. Though as a girl (Isabella Cramp) she was blessed with a wonderful imagination, encouraged by her loving grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd, who narrates), her life spiraled out of control. Now she’s a divorcee with two kids, trying to maintain a degree of financial stability in a house where Mimi also lives, along with Joy’s mother Carrie (Virginia Madsen), a troubled shut-in who spends all her time watching tapes of her favorite soap opera. (One of the movie’s best jokes is that the terrible scenes from the show are acted by genuine serial stars like Susan Lucci.) Things get even more raucous when Joy’s father Rudy (De Niro), the philandering owner of a crummy auto shop, gets dumped by his latest girlfriend and has to move into the basement. The problem is that Tony (Edgar Ramirez), Joy’s ex and a would-be lounge lizard, is also ensconced there, so they’ll have to share.
Among the chores Joy is saddled with is cleaning up after everybody, and one day as she deals with a particularly bad spill, she gets the idea for a mop that can wring itself dry, with an absurdly absorbent cotton head that can be detached and tossed into the washing machine. She fashions a prototype and, after trying futilely to market it on her own, accepts Tony’s offer to connect her with an old pal of his, Neil Walker (Cooper), the head honcho of the fledgling cable-shopping network QVC. Initial efforts by the regular hosts—including Joan Rivers, played here by her daughter Melissa—to hawk the product are a bust, but sales take off like a rocket when Joy does the on-screen banter herself (after a halting start, of course). Before long she’s into mass production of the mop, with an assembly-line operation set up in Rudy’s shop and financing provided by his newest squeeze, a wealthy widow named Trudy (Isabella Rossellini). Things appear to be going swimmingly.
Of course, Joy’s success can’t be that easy. Obstacles arise in the form of partners who try to bilk her, legal problems that seem insurmountable and family members—including Rudy and her jealous sister Peggy (Elisabeth Rohm)—who undermine her confidence. A death also casts gloom over her prospects. But continuing support from Tony and her long-time best friend Jackie (Dascha Polanco), as well as her own innate spunk, encourage Joy to take matters into her own hands and save the day. By the close she’s a rich entrepreneur helping others to realize to realize their “impossible dreams” with unusual inventions.
It’s hard to tell how much of “Joy,” apart from the basic plot trajectory, accurately reflects Mangano’s life story. But it doesn’t really matter. The movie is intended not as a documentary, but as a freewheeling parable of female empowerment in a world still hostile to the very idea of it, much as “American Hustle” was a satirical encapsulation of the corruptive influence of money and power. Russell wants it to play in the way “Hustle” did, as a quasi-cartoon with serious underpinnings. But the approach that worked so well in the earlier film doesn’t here. Apart from Joy and her children, the Mangano family members are so weird that they barely seem like human beings at all, and many of the domestic scenes come across like panels from a sour comic book. In such circumstances even such pros as De Niro, Ladd and Madsen can’t do much except to overplay broadly, which only makes matters worse.
Lawrence is no shrinking violet either, but she’s able to invest Joy with at least a modicum of genuine human feeling, even if though the character us based on an actual person it’s hard to believe in her in the last act, when she becomes an avenging angel of sorts—in a Dallas-set sequence that anyone acquainted with the state will testify lacks the slightest hint of accuracy. But the whole of the picture is meant to have a sort of artificial, wonderland quality, so complaints along those lines should be dismissed as beside the point. As for Cooper, he’s as laid-back here as he was off-the-wall in “Hustle” (or Christoph Waltz was in “Big Eyes”), and in this case the change is agreeable: he provides an oasis of calmness and normalcy in what is otherwise largely a familial freak show.
As usual with Russell, the film is technically quite proficient, boasting attractive production design by Judy Becker and art direction by Peter Rogness, as well as set decoration by Heather Loeffler and costumes by Michael Wilkinson appropriate to the times and places. Linus Sandgren’s cinematography is expert as well, differentiating between the more and less realistic scenes nicely. But the fact that there are no fewer than four editors credited is indicative of the movie’s general shapelessness; it never really finds its footing, jumping back and forth chronologically and blurring fantasy and reality in a way that suggests something like desperation in fitting everything together.
Russell is a talented filmmaker and Lawrence one of the best young actresses working today. But this latest collaboration winds up as soggy as a Miracle Mop that hasn’t been wrung out.