Like all of David O. Russell’s films from the past decade, Joy is a bit of a mess. But this one’s self-cleaning! For the low, low price of $8.75, if you head on down to your theater now, you get this Miracle Mop! And if you act now, we’ll also give you two hours with Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro! Taking us from squalid domesticity to the QVC showroom (that’s the "Quality, Value, Convenience" home-shopping network), Joy spins a fable of an American Dream still attainable with the right combination of heart and smarts, pluck and luck.
“Inspired by True Stories of Daring Women. One in particular,” Joy tells the tale of Joy Mangano (Lawrence), a single mother depicted by writer-director Russell as the only thing keeping her family from coming apart at the seams. Joy raises three children with little help from her ex-husband, aspiring lounge singer Tony (Édgar Ramírez), her nutty estranged parents Rudy (De Niro) and Terry (Virginia Madsen), or her grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd), who narrates. It’s a crazy life and a full house with all of these characters under one roof, and though Joy’s “dreams are on hold,” she never stops wishing on the big idea that’ll be her ticket to a less stressful existence.
In an unspoken solidarity with other harried working mothers wishing on less stressful existences, Joy comes up with invention after invention. As Mimi puts it, “Joy was one of those people who rejoiced in making things.” The Big One comes in the form of the Miracle Mop, a self-wringing, no-fuss, no-muss mop designed by Mangano to clean using a continuous loop of 300 feet of cotton. Taking the Mop to market starts local, with Rudy’s latest girlfriend, the well-off Trudy (Isabella Rossellini). A succession of business headaches eventually lead to a pitch session with Neil Walker (Cooper) at QVC and plenty of next-level business headaches before triumph.
Russell gets good work from his cast, and if his improvisatory approach to directing always results in films that feel synthetic, at least he deliberately undercuts claims to telling a true story. Despite the sloppiness (a death scene played as pivotal, though we haven’t been made to care about the deceased) and restlessness (an entirely unnecessary dream sequence), Russell’s working in an old-Hollywood mythmaking vein that’s more reliant on extraordinary acting than ordinary truth. “In America,” says Walker, “the ordinary meets the extraordinary every single day.”
As for Lawrence, she’s again playing a part for which she’s roughly a decade too young, but she pulls it off with ferocious spirit. If Joy is about anything, it’s about the kind of character we still want to believe can succeed through excellence and persistence. While saluting can-do entrepreneurship, Joy proposes a woman of iron will who rises stronger after each fall, who’s ethics make her loyal to those she can trust—only her ex and her BFF Jackie (Dascha Polanco)—and those she can’t. Though everything around this resilient central figure is wan sitcom, “Joy the Doer” provides a rooting interest potent enough to justify the film.