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Realistically, it was only a matter of time before David O. Russell vomited another I Heart Huckabees. Although Joy, the fictionalized story of Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano, isn’t quite as head-scratching as Russell’s 2004 film, it’s still a mishmash in tone and narrative, further sunk by intolerably wacky one-note characters whose primary objective is pulling our protagonist down.
Jennifer Lawrence marks her third collaboration with Russell here; her first, 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook, won her an Oscar. As Joy, however, Lawrence often seems uncertain about how to handle a scene, though she by far gives the most solid performance of the cast.
You’ll wonder what the hell is going on right from the start. A black-and-white, sharply digital snippet of a soap opera plays out, with two bad actresses stiffly discussing how to behave with strength. Then a title card announces, “Inspired by true stories of daring women,” and Joy’s story begins.
Narrated by Joy’s grandmother, Mimi (Diane Ladd), the film starts with her childhood, portraying Joy as a relentlessly creative child in a broken, working-class family. Her parents, Rudy and Terry (Robert De Niro and Virginia Madsen), end up divorced, and Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm), her older half-sister, for some reason grows up to openly dislike Joy. Fast forward to the present, with Joy the only seemingly sane member of a household that includes Terry, now a not-quite-there divorceé who won’t leave her room and talks about soaps as if they’re real, Joy’s two young children, Mimi, and Joy’s ex-husband, Tony (Édgar Ramírez). But wait: ding dong! It’s Rudy, being dropped off by his third wife (Marianne Leone) because she “doesn’t want him any more.”
Rudy immediately starts arguing with Terry and breaks a few things before being cast off to the basement, which he’ll share with the former son-in-law he can’t stand. Meanwhile, Joy is simultaneously trying to referee and find her lanyard so she can make it to her airline job on time.
Joy continues in this chaotic fashion while adding yet another character, Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), Rudy’s new love interest who also happens to have a handy inheritance. What led Joy to her Miracle Mop lightbulb moment is hardly memorable; instead, it’s the resistance she encounters by nearly everyone except Tony and her best friend, Jackie (Orange Is the New Black’s Dascha Polanco). Repeatedly, Joy is shown surrounded by these people, who treat her as if she’s putting her kids up for adoption, euthanizing Granny, and letting the rest of the crazies fight themselves to the death.
Russell and co-writer Annie Mumolo add touches of surrealism to scenes, which only further distracts the viewer from the crux of the plot. There’s one single sequence that’s told with linearity and minimal confusion, and that’s when Joy meets Neil (Bradley Cooper, wasted along with the rest), an executive with home shopping networks who reluctantly puts her on TV to sell the mop herself. It’s a feel-good chapter in a film that could use more of them. On the opposite end of the gripping-story spectrum, a scene in which Joy travels to Texas to confront a man who swindled her feels pulled from a different movie.
Throughout, you’re never really given the chance to figure out what makes Joy tick. She’s resilient and take-charge, yes. But the way in which she submits to being questioned by her family—particularly this family—seems inconsistent. Joy’s leap to “matriarch,” as the synopsis calls her, also occurs mighty fast. (Lawrence, as good as she is, seriously needs to stop being cast beyond her years.) The movie’s takeaway message is recognizing when your life has gone off the rails and you need to revisit your younger self and that child’s dreams, a moving theme that starts to play out nicely during a talk between Joy and Jackie (wait till you see what interrupts it). Ironically, Russell apparently couldn’t see when his own vision went off the rails, leaving not broken dreams but disappointed fans in his wake.
Image via 20th Century Fox