David O. Russell’s latest film opens with a small-screen view of an impossibly stilted soap opera, its actors planted like trees on their marks in front of the studio cameras. It’s the favored show of the nearly bedridden mother of Joy Mangano, the future miracle-mop-inventor who still lives with her parasitic Long Island family, a bastion against dysfunction (but also a part of it). It’s not a bad guiding metaphor—that Joy herself is stuck in the recurring deflating, chauvinist narrative of her life that permits her no personal expression or advancement.
That’s about as intriguing as Joy the movie gets before turning into a film-length advertisement for the self-empowerment of its working-class protagonist. All the usual fun Russell crossfire is here, however, with people speaking their kooky minds and getting in each other’s business, like Robert De Niro as Joy’s estranged father who runs an auto-body shop, or a bewigged Isabella Rossellini as his newfound wealthy-widow love. But as soon as Joy gets that look in her eyes and pursues her invention, it’s the gumption show.
Fortunately, Lawrence could mop the floor and it’d be interesting (which, in fact, she does). Her energy and genuineness, and ability to surprise by modulating happy and sad emotions despite her outward glow, are all impressive. But it’s still not enough to save the film, which bumps along to an abrupt, broken-backed ending.