David O. Russell's movies sometimes have an undercooked quality that is part of their charm, little imperfections matching those of his characters. Scenes beginning or ending unlikely, dialogue either too polished or improvised, dead-end tangents.
Russell's cavalier urges take over his latest work, the quasi-biopic Joy, showcasing his Academy Award-winning muse Jennifer Lawrence. Joy could and should be another of the filmmaker's scrappy self-rehab stories, inspired by the career of Joy Mangano, whose home shopping brand began with the Miracle Mop.
Instead, Joy is one of Russell's more puzzling efforts, and this is the man who made I Heart Huckabees. It is neither Silver Linings Playbook redux as ads and casting suggest, nor an energetic American Hustle-style farce. There's nothing wrong with Russell or any artist trying something different unless it feels so unrealized, so rushed.
The surname Mangano is never spoken, although it's her story scripted by Russell and Annie Mumolo (minus her Bridesmaids verve). Lawrence's Joy is the resentful head of Russell's specialty: a dysfunctional family unit. She works three jobs and cares for her shut-in mother (Virginia Madsen) and children while her crooning ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez) lives in the basement.
Joy's divorced father (Robert De Niro) is a chronic romantic, in between girlfriends so he joins the son-in-law he never liked in the basement. The first half of Joy is devoted to everyone's quirks, from Dad's body shop with an unlicensed gun range outside, to Mom in her "comfort nest," addicted to soap operas. Joy's simmering patience isn't the best use of Lawrence's appeal.
Soap operas are a recurring theme, starting with a bizarre opening scene set among actors absently reciting dialogue, not looking where they should. Russell returns to them constantly, straining to correlate Joy's troubles with their conversation. A lot of this feels like material that would be strongly reconsidered if Russell weren't rushing for an awards season release.
Joy finds a midway groove of sorts when Dad's new girlfriend (Isabella Rossellini), a widow of means, enters the picture. She can finance Joy's idea for a self-wringing mop. The ups and downs of design and manufacturing spark Russell's more playful instincts. Lawrence responds in kind, rolling with Joy's escalating empowerment against men controlling her life and business.
Finally, the movie Joy could always be. Persistence leads Joy to the QVC shopping network and a producer (Bradley Cooper, but it could be anyone) believing in her mop, until it flops on the air. Joy's response leads to a wonderful sequence when maker becomes seller and a dwarf star is born.
A rushed wrapup turns Mangano's continued success at HSN, which has its headquarters in St. Petersburg, into a footnote. Endings have never been Russell's strong suit. This time the beginning also eluded him, and the middle fell into his lap. Joy leaves a feeling of panicked disappointment, as if phone lines are open and nobody's calling.
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