JOY directed by David O. Russell, written by.

JOY directed by David O. Russell, written by Russell from a story by Annie Mumolo, with Jennifer Lawrence, Édgar Ramírez and Robert de Niro. 124 minutes. A 20th Century Fox release. (Opens December 25). For venues and times, see Rating: NN

A shambolic film can be very entertaining, but the messy filmmaking in David O. Russell’s Joy puts the viewer off balance in a bad way. It so lacks drive that even star Jennifer Lawrence can’t figure out how – and where – to pitch her performance.

Joy Mangano (Lawrence) was always a creative kid. But as an adult, she’s wound up a struggling single mother with two kids living in a dilapidated house, while her deadbeat ex-husband (Édgar Ramírez) occupies the basement and her soap-opera–addicted mother (Virginia Madsen) never leaves her bedroom. Soon, her divorced dad (Robert De Niro) moves into the cellar, too.

Joy’s stuck, big time.

But, spurred on by her grandmother (Diane Ladd), she develops a good idea: every housewife needs a mop that’ll last forever. So she invents one that you can wring out hands-free, wash and reuse. She gets it made. She’s just gotta sell it.

So goes the first half of the movie, which is more a portrait of a dysfunctional family than a sharply told story. De Niro can do curmudgeon in his sleep, and he does it well, and Madsen as Joy’s homebound mom is a hoot.


But this section, shifting between the present and Joy’s childhood, has no narrative drive. A scene in which De Niro’s dad smashes plates feels like a calculated attempt to infuse the piece with some life. A series of invented soap opera sequences featuring real-life soap star Susan Lucci show promise, but from a thematic standpoint they’re wasted and soon fall by the wayside.

The whole thing doesn’t really come to life until just before the half-way point, when Joy meets with QVC director Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), who gives her a chance. This section is expertly constructed, with Walker explaining how the shopping channel works as he directs sequences for maximum impact.

Once the mop starts selling – thanks to the investment of her dad’s capitalist girlfriend (a sparkling Isabella Rossellini), her unusually supportive ex and her best friend  (Dascha Polanco of Orange Is The New Black) – the film shifts into a study of trust and betrayal. 

Here Joy stops dead in its tracks for about a half hour, and then for the last 10 minutes careens to its strangely unsatisfying conclusion. Why were the compelling events described in the final voice-over not included? They would have added some much needed drama to this chaotic ramble.

Four editors – always a warning – have failed to give the movie any rhythm, and Lawrence’s performance suffers because of it. It’s as if she’s missing something other than housewifely dissatisfaction as motivation. She had more resolve shooting an arrow in that cartoon The Hunger Games.  

Oscar buzz

Buzz is low for Joy. Though the film scored Golden Globe noms for best picture and best actress for Jennifer Lawrence in the comedy or musical category, Lawrence probably made the cut more because she’s so great to have at a party than because of the performance per se. The Academy does love her, but I don’t think members will succumb to her or the movie. Robert De Niro might get some attention in the supporting actor category, but not enough to get him onto the nominations list.     

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