After wholeheartedly embracing the art of the con in “American Hustle,” David O. Russell shifts gears and celebrates the virtues of honesty, grit and can-do spirit with “Joy,” a more constrained and significantly less inspired seriocomic romp cobbled together from the life of Joy Mangano, the woman who invented the Miracle Mop and turned it into a home-shopping phenomenon. If a “Eureka!” moment in the history of the household cleaning industry seems a less-than-intuitive premise for a mainstream feature film, rest assured that Russell has stretched this heavily fictionalized material about as far as it could go, though he stops well short of the screwball delirium and emotional liftoff he achieved in his recent string of triumphs. Despite another solid performance from Jennifer Lawrence, anchoring Russell’s sincerely felt tribute to the power of a woman’s resolve in a man’s world, it’s hard not to wish “Joy” were better — that its various winsome parts added up to more than a flyweight product that still feels stuck in the development stage.
Much has already been made about the fact that Russell — always a fan of sharply written, exuberantly played female characters, going back to “Spanking the Monkey” and “Flirting With Disaster” — has now written and directed his first picture centered wholly around a woman. Even in a year that has seen a refreshing uptick in distaff-centric Hollywood narratives (in front of the camera, anyway), that virtue that should lend “Joy” some counter-programming heft opposite the more male-skewing likes of “The Revenant” and “The Hateful Eight,” both also opening Christmas Day. And Lawrence, presently sitting atop the box office in the fourth and final installment of the “Hunger Games” franchise, should drive curious audiences toward this welcome alternative showcase for her ever-expanding range as an actress.
There’s a touch of “Erin Brockovich” and a smattering of “Mildred Pierce” in the story (credited to Russell and Annie Mumolo) of a smart, resourceful, working-class single mom defying considerable odds to seize her entrepreneurial moment, and meeting with shaky support and stubborn resistance from her family and outsiders in the process. And Russell, unspooling this rags-to-riches fable in a tone of mocking affection, riffs on two of the storytelling modes that have been historically and often disparagingly reserved for women: the fairy tale and the soap opera. Unfolding mainly in an unspecified Rust Belt town during the 1980s and ’90s, the movie frames its heroine’s story with an amusing sendup of a long-running daytime TV serial (populated by such game, Emmy-winning icons of the medium as Susan Lucci, Laura Wright and Maurice Benard), while the gentle storybook narration of Joy’s beloved grandmother, Mimi (the great Diane Ladd, another soap veteran), bobs and weaves in and out of the narrative.
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Mimi has long been a pillar of strength for Joy (Lawrence), and a necessary counterweight to the influence of her long-divorced parents, both of whom are decidedly in their own worlds. Her shut-in mother, Carrie (Virginia Madsen), spends her entire life in bed, her eyes glued to the aforementioned show, and her father, Rudy (Robert De Niro), is a much-married blue-collar crank who’s just been dumped by his latest squeeze. With nowhere else to turn, Rudy moves into Joy’s already crowded house, crashing in the basement along with Joy’s ex-husband, Tony (Edgar Ramirez), a hunky Venezuelan singer with whom she has two young kids. In short, it’s another of Russell’s classic fractious families, the sort of bickersome clan that leaves the floor covered in broken crockery in the first five minutes of screen time, and the movie has fun using strategically positioned dream sequences and flashbacks to illuminate how Joy got to this difficult point — and how she might move past it.
She may be the glue holding together this tangled mess of dysfunction, but Joy is destined for greater things than working with her mean-spirited half-sister, Peggy (Elisabeth Rohm), at their dad’s auto shop — something she’s instinctively known since she was a young girl (played by Isabella Crovetti-Cramp), cutting and pasting together intricate paper dioramas in her bedroom. And that long-dormant creativity re-emerges when she has to mop up an unusually messy spill one afternoon, handily demonstrating that necessity is the mother (rather than the father) of invention: In one enchanting sequence, Joy uses her daughter’s crayons to draw the preliminary blueprints for a plastic-handled, self-wringing mop, the only product of its kind that customers will ever need to buy.
The words “Miracle Mop” — or “Mangano,” for that matter — are never actually uttered here, suggesting that “Joy” is unfolding in roughly the same realm of altered names, composite characters, rejiggered time frames and loosely fact-inspired truthiness that begat “American Hustle.” Yet despite the air of lightly comic exaggeration that attends the whole enterprise, there’s a certain hard-edged rigor to the way Russell lays out the innumerable challenges of launching one’s own business. Joy is fortunate to have a begrudging source of capital in the form of Rudy’s wealthy new squeeze, Trudy (a delightful Isabella Rossellini), who locates a sketchy California company willing to manufacture parts on the cheap (or so they think). But then there’s the problem of distribution, as Kmart and other retail stores prove unwilling to devote floor space to such an expensive ($19.95 a mop) and potentially game-changing product.
The movie hits its stride, at least temporarily, when the ever-helpful Tony lands Joy a meeting with Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), an executive for the TV network QVC — at the time, a relatively new commercial phenomenon that allows celebrity sellers (including Joan Rivers, played by her daughter Melissa) to bring the latest merchandise directly into their customers’ homes. (This subplot allows the Fox production to plunder some of the studio’s corporate history, including references to former chief Barry Diller’s acquisition of QVC.) And Cooper, who achieved such arresting, live-wire chemistry with Lawrence in “Silver Linings Playbook,” downplays effectively here as a cautious, mild-mannered, business-first type who spends most of his screen time patiently teaching this novice the rules of the call-in commerce game. But Joy’s confidence ultimately persuades Neil to put not only the product but also the inventor herself on the air, paving the way for a suspenseful, even blissful comic payoff in which we see this hard-working self-starter come fully and radiantly into her own.
These scenes find an ideal balance between self-fulfillment comic fantasy and gritty, workaday realism, and “Joy” benefits from its focus on the mundane; it’s a marvel how much quiet emotion Lawrence manages to wring, so to speak, as she speaks lovingly about her mop and its unprecedented 300 feet of super-absorbent, hand-coiled cotton. But after that peak, the movie begins to flatten out as Joy’s ever-shifting fortunes tug her this way and that, while a succession of broken promises and cruel betrayals lead her from overnight sales success to the brink of bankruptcy, before her eventual rebirth as a new kind of familial and corporate matriarch. The swift, tidy reversals that bring the story to its fairy-tale conclusion feel unpredictable yet also somewhat arbitrary, and Russell, seemingly uncertain as to when to call it quits, seems content to end things on an optimistic shrug.
The aim seems to have been to weave various familiar Russellian elements — offbeat comedy, familial discord, wheeling-and-dealing chicanery, and a playful hint of make-believe — into a loving testament to the ways in which women survive, and thrive, even in a world actively devoted to keeping them in their place. But at a certain point, “Joy’s” grand ambitions and feminist underpinnings can’t disguise the essential lack of dramatic purpose or direction at the movie’s core. Russell is known for finding his fast, frenzied movies in the cutting room, a tactic that has rarely let him down in the past, but the same brilliance eludes him here. With no fewer than four editors credited, you have to wonder if the continual whittling and reshaping of scenes ultimately whittled away what was most interesting about Joy Mangano’s story in the first place. (Mangano is credited as an exec producer here.)
In “American Hustle,” the narrative hiccups and evasions felt of a piece with the movie’s madly dissembling, improvisatory spirit; it was a movie about the exhilaration of self-reinvention that got by on pure rambunctious rhythm and attitude. But “Joy,” in celebrating a figure known for her gumption and perseverance, feels tamer, blander and less certain of its footing. The rhythms are slightly off from the start, and try as he might, Russell can’t quite unlock either the grand human comedy or the gritty working-class melodrama within. And Lawrence, such a blazing revelation in “Hustle” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” gives a performance that’s easy enough to root for but much less jagged and distinctive than her earlier work; always flinty, emotionally accessible and pleasurable to watch, she nevertheless seems to be embodying some vague, free-floating spirit of sisterhood rather than a character we feel we’ve come to know intimately by movie’s end.
In a similar vein, the supporting cast doesn’t have quite the same snap and cohesion we’ve come to expect from Russell’s earlier, multi-Oscar-nominated ensembles. Rohm, in particular, has been either misdirected or miscast as the competitive older sister whose attitude toward Joy feels needlessly antagonistic and one-note. But the other actors fare better, even when their various comic non sequiturs feel a bit shoehorned in; Madsen and Rossellini have endearingly loopy moments, De Niro knows the lovable-curmudgeon routine inside out; Dascha Polanco steals a scene or two as Joy’s unswervingly loyal best friend; and Ladd simply makes you grateful to see her in her first significant big-screen appearance in years. Cooper can still generate enough of a spark with Lawrence to make you wish he had more screen time, though her truer partner here is Ramirez as Charlie — a winsome Desi to her Lucy, offering genial evidence that amicable divorces make for the most enduring friendships. At the very least, “Joy’s” contribution to the understaffed ranks of supportive on-screen husbands has to count as progress of a sort.