In most of his eight films and especially since The Fighter (2010), choreographer of chaos and screwball scion David O. Russell has assembled boisterous, buoyant casts. His manic ensemble players, like those in Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and American Hustle (2013), carom off one another, their high-pitched energy keeping the movies bustling and busy. Plenty of characters still crowd the frame and clamorously vie for our attention in Joy, Russell’s latest, loosely based on the life of Joy Mangano, the now 59-year-old inventor of the Miracle Mop. But the director, whose previous works bear the stamp of 1930s madcap masters such as Gregory La Cava and New American Cinema avatars like Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman, here seems to be trying to emulate what used to be called the “woman’s picture,” a genre exemplified by Mildred Pierce (1945), another tale (though fictional) of a female entrepreneur. Russell has built the film around his regular troupe member Jennifer Lawrence — who is burdened by the banalities littering Joy’s script.
Many of the movie's platitudes revolve around family: Joy, which follows its Long Island-born heroine from her early 20s to roughly her mid-40s, with the occasional flashback to her grade-school years thrown in, devotes much of its running time to illustrating the shopworn idea that our closest kin can be our stealthiest saboteurs.
Joy still lives in her childhood home, a two-story structure crowded with three generations, including her beloved grandmother (Diane Ladd, who also narrates) and her own two tiny kids. These cramped quarters seem even more claustrophobic owing to the outsize needs of mom Terry (Virginia Madsen), a shut-in who hasn’t left her bedroom — or “comfort nest,” as Ma prefers — in years, glued to a soap opera that Russell milks for clumsy meta-commentary. The dwelling becomes nearly uninhabitable with the return of stormy patriarch Rudy (Robert De Niro), deposited at the doorstep by the latest of his soon-to-be-ex wives; Joy installs Dad in the basement, already occupied by her former spouse, Tony (Édgar Ramirez), who aspires to be the next Tom Jones.
“I don’t want to end up like my family,” Joy laments, her declaration echoing the theme explored in The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook (if not the words of probably every person who’s ever sat in a therapist’s office). Those earlier films, though, elevated — or at least enlivened — that truism via the sheer outrageousness of many of the players: the septet of sisters in The Fighter, those Southie-accented Furies, or Pat Sr., the magical-thinking, Philadelphia Eagles–obsessed father in Silver Linings Playbook. That football fanatic was played by De Niro, who in Joy doesn’t really deviate from Pat Sr.’s exaggerated gesticulations and grumpy outbursts, the semaphores that signal moviedom's idea of an aggrieved, ineffectual Italian-American paterfamilias. That De Niro seems to be simply repeating a prior performance further highlights the sense that Russell has run out of ways to illuminate fractious clans.
Russell enthusiasts — and I consider myself one – often applaud the director’s abiding interest in the messiness of his characters’ lives, most vividly on display in American Hustle, a movie animated by flamboyant dissemblers and depressives. But the disorder found in Joy is a reflection not of any quicksilver dynamics among the actors but the odd tonal shifts in the film itself. So much of Joy, which was written by Russell — though Annie Mumolo, who co-scripted Bridesmaids with Kristen Wiig, is given a story credit — seems provisional, a clumsy first-draft attempt at making an unconventional movie about a woman who earned millions from the most pedestrian of objects.
In addition to that unsuccessful soap-opera framing device, the film’s misfires include the bromides delivered by Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper, another Russell regular), an executive at QVC, where Joy learns to become a successful pitchwoman. “In America, the ordinary meets the extraordinary every single day,” the suit tells the ambitious inventor, a fatuous philosophy that the film celebrates as self-evident truth without ever offering much to demonstrate it.
Joy is not without its pleasures: On that QVC set, we are treated to the bizarre sight of Joan Rivers as embodied by her daughter, Melissa. This uncanny tribute suggests the odder detours that the movie might have more fruitfully explored — possibilities that are inevitably thwarted by Joy’s investment in timeworn concepts about dysfunctional relationships. Among the extended supporting cast, Dascha Polanco, as Joy’s best friend, and Isabella Rossellini, playing Rudy’s latest inamorata, invigorate any of their too-few scenes.
For her part, Lawrence, so tonic and mesmerizing in Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, valiantly tries to bring to life a heroine who is both underwritten and overdetermined. Joy always scans as a composite — not only of those self-abnegating martyrs of classic Hollywood like Mildred Pierce but also of Russell’s thinly conceived ideas about lower-middle-class strivers. “I wear a blouse and I wear pants. That’s how I look,” Joy tells Neil before stepping in front of the QVC cameras for the first time. Russell’s movie cloaks her in an even more unvarying uniform.