“Joy” finds co-writer / director David O. Russell returning to his reliable compass and navigating the dire straits of domestic dysfunction — tales that turn from tranquility to turmoil, and back again, on a dime. Under his bustling camera, even the happiest moments can feel like a battle. (It’s a welcome rebound after 2013’s “American Hustle,” Russell’s overindulgence of his Martin Scorsese adorations that felt like little more than awesome hair, makeup and costumes in search of a story to tell.)
Russell has certainly made the most of his parole from Movie Jail. Once blackballed after well-publicized rows with big stars during “I Heart Huckabees” and “Three Kings,” Russell has now made as many movies in the last five years (disregarding “Accidental Love,” which he has disavowed) as he had in the previous 16. The best of them find grace emerging from anarchy in a way that feels as much like his own form of therapy as it does popular entertainment. As a fairytale of dysfunctional families and advocacy for supply-side economics (yes, you read that right), “Joy” reminds you Russell can find relatable grooves in almost anything
For all its considerable skills, though, “Joy” suggests Russell may have run his course with his repertory players — Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro — if he’s not going to challenge them anymore. 2012’s “Silver Linings Playbook” offered revelations (or, in De Niro’s case, a welcome reminder) of these actors’ capabilities. “Hustle” then miscast or misused them, and however amiably it does so, “Joy” certainly coasts on the charms you expect from all three stars. All three are good, but none surprises you; De Niro especially plays a less complicated, more caustically comic riff on his “Linings” character.
“Joy” is loosely based on the life of Joy Mangano (Lawrence), a New York mother of three whose dreams of one day inventing something great have yielded to a more common patent — settling for diminished expectations. Her unemployed-layabout ex-husband, Tony (Édgar Ramirez), doesn’t realize no one will discover his singing “talent” if he never leaves her basement. Her father, Rudy (De Niro), who owns a garage, deposits himself back on Joy’s doorstep after his latest failed relationship.
Her mother, Terry, (Virginia Madsen) lives with her, too — content to while away in bed watching soap operas and foisting on Joy their scripted platitudes meant to pacify women with dreams. (“You’re like a gas leak. We can’t see you, we can’t smell you, and you’re killing us all,” Rudy says, amusingly, of Terry.) Joy’s haughty half-sister, Peggy (Elizabeth Röhm), feels underappreciated for how she manages Rudy’s garage. Apart from her kids and her friend Jackie (Dascha Polanco), Joy only feels kinship with her grandmother (Diane Ladd), who narrates the film and insists Joy is destined to be “an unanxious presence in this family.”
As with the Eklund-Wards in “The Fighter,” Russell evokes the whizzing, pinging energy of his early screwball-comedy masterpiece “Flirting with Disaster” in his introduction of the Manganos — a collection of all-you-can-eat egos cannibalizing each other. (A slight complaint: Röhm, though not the daughter of Madsen’s character, so closely resembles a young Madsen that it’s distracting.)
Beleaguered and besieged at home and at her airline-reservation job, Joy wears food stains on her blouses the way other women wear brooches. But she has a moment of clarity after red wine stains the irreplaceable deck of a boat that belongs to Rudy’s latest flame, Trudy (Isabella Rossellini). Slicing her hands open on glass as she wrings a mop, Joy envisions a self-wringing mop with 300 feet of cotton yarn in a continuous loop that you can use in multiple rooms, detach and then clean for ease. (Like the portable bone-density scanners in “The Pursuit of Happyness,” the Miracle Mop is its own character.)
Calling in favors from friends and gaining a financier in Trudy, Joy creates a prototype and, eventually, a product. But the fickle wheels of commerce, bad business advice, deals born of desperation and her family’s backstage machinations conspire to ruin her. (There are nice surprises, though, from Ramirez and Polanco, each of whom elevate what could have been stock roles of lout and loyalist in Joy’s life.)
Cooper plays the secondary, but pivotal, role of Neil Walker, a QVC executive molding the future of home shopping who gives Joy a shot to sell her mop to the masses. Russell has great fun with the backrooms of QVC — from the warrens of the prickly on-air talents to the phone banks that eventually ripple with all the tension of a NASA mission control center. It makes sense that Neil and Joy would become pals; both are champions of an idea everyone was certain wouldn’t work, and the duo (in their fourth film together) have a fun, if familiar, push-and-pull. Some of “Joy’s” finest scenes take place during these QVC telecasts — one a dispiriting disaster, the other finding Cooper seeming to conduct commerce into a frenzied crescendo with Lawrence as his concertmaster.
Meanwhile, the Manganos’ personal beefs swarm Joy like a virus, mutating into a new strain with every achievement. To the credit of Lawrence’s sympathetic underdog performance, their new heights, or lows as it were, cumulatively build to elicit a response of revulsion; a scene in which Joy is forced to sign papers that further debilitate her feel like she’s being whacked. It’s here you realize this isn’t only a movie about the making of a mop: It’s a look at how people of ingenuity and imagination often can’t get out of their own way — or cast aside others presenting obstacles — to capitalize on their talent.
If only Russell were content to let that personal story of an inventive young women, her abrasive family and her dogged determination stand on its own merit. The third act feels like Biopic Bingo and the finale can’t elevate “Joy” into Important Story territory of economic American exceptionalism for which Russell is shooting.
But even as it gets stuck between stations, “Joy” is an engaging — and, at the right moments, enraging — tale about both perseverance and the psychology of purchasing. In that regard, its explanations of how and why you’re goaded to spend what you do make it a bizarrely appropriate Christmas Day film.