Writer-director David O. Russell has made three kinds of movies: offbeat romances (“Flirting With Disaster”), surreal comedies (“I Heart Huckabees”) and dramas about dysfunctional yet appealing families (“The Fighter”).
He combines these elements in “Joy,” which despite its title remains almost entirely joyless. They go together uneasily, like a cake made of mustard, ramen noodles and chocolate. Jennifer Lawrence’s performance as Miracle Mop inventor and QVC pitchwoman Joy Mangano glues the movie together, but it threatens to unravel at any time.
Her Joy has married a lounge singer (Édgar Ramírez), had two kids, divorced him and now lives with her parents, who are also divorced. Dad (somnolent Robert De Niro) thinks he’s a financial genius irresistible to women. Mom (Virginia Madsen) stays in her bedroom and watches soap operas, until she falls for a Haitian plumber (Jimmy Jean-Louis) who fixes a hole in her bedroom floor.
Her father and her ex-husband, who hate each other, live in a basement divided by a long strip of toilet paper. Joy’s grandma (endearing Diane Ladd) delivers messages of empowerment and smooths over constant fights, but she’s opposed by the money-grubbing rich woman (Isabella Rossellini) who dates Joy’s dad and sends negative messages about her.
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Joy, who’s been inventing things for years, convinces a QVC executive (Bradley Cooper) to let a pitchman demonstrate her mop on the network. When he flops, she goes onto the set herself, and success complicates her life.
Is the film a fable about an average person’s ability to achieve the American Dream? A Wes Anderson movie with half the humor and slower pacing, where we watch a zoo full of oddballs? A satire on the acquisitiveness of the public? (Here, QVC foists unnecessary things on gullible viewers who could better save their money.)
Russell doesn’t seem to know. He has mixed genres successfully before, as in the anti-war comedy-drama “Three Kings,” but the blender often grinds to a halt in “Joy.” Just as we’re getting used to the realism of Mangano’s fight for respect, Russell photographs Rossellini as if she were a gargoyle.
The 25-year-old Lawrence is too young – Mangano was 35 when the mop took off – but compelling to watch. Yet in “Silver Linings Playbook,” Cooper, De Niro and Russell all supported her with fine work; here they lie back and make the movie a one-ring circus where she has to be acrobat, bareback rider and clown. That’s too much to ask.
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, Isabella Rossellini, Diane Ladd.
Writer-Director: David O. Russell.
Length: 124 minutes.
Rating: R (brief strong language).