Director David O. Russell and Jennifer Lawrence sure like to work with each other. Lawrence, who’s served as more of a supporting character in his previous films, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, takes on the title role in Russell’s first film primarily about a woman. So there’s no doubt that Russell would have Lawrence in mind when he set out to make a film about Miracle Mop inventor, Joy Mangano. The result is uneven, although its heart is the right place.
Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence) is a single mother of two and the sole breadwinner for a family that includes her mother (Virginia Madsen), a father, Rudy (Robert De Niro), who is in and out of her life and her home, and an ex-husband, Tony (Édgar Ramírez) who is also her friend and later manager. Her grandmother and narrator, Mimi (Diane Ladd), has always believed that she’ll do something so much better with her life. And when Joy comes up with an idea for a mop that’ll make it easier to clean, she becomes determined to get this new invention out there, no matter who gets in her way.
I’ve generally been a fan of David O. Russell’s past work. He has a tendency to maintain a sense of humor even when his films borderline drama. His scripts have always been contained and led to a good end point, but while Joy has a sense of humor, and reunited Lawrence, De Niro, and Bradley Cooper, the script is all over the place. The film doesn’t have a strong sense of self nor does it quite know what it’s truly trying to accomplish other than presenting us with a strong woman.
Jennifer Lawrence excels in portraying Joy, a woman who has the burden of her entire family and extended family on her shoulders, and who ultimately stands up for her product even though it’s touch and go for a long while. Lawrence brings her A game, even when the script proves to deter the film around the second act through to the end. Robert De Niro plays the comedic relief. His role as Joy’s father is played for laughs, but he isn’t exactly the picture of a wholly supportive father either. Bradley Cooper doesn’t play a romantic interest to Lawrence, which is odd because we’ve become so accustomed to it. Instead, he’s a businessman who is one of the first to tell Joy that her product is not fit for his network before having his mind changed by her. For the few scenes they’re in together, it works.
What doesn’t work is the film’s lack of fluidity. Russell’s direction is not focused and therefore, neither is one’s attention. Joy wants to be a female empowerment story, and it can be very much so, but it goes to great extremes to be entertaining rather than trying for fully realized characters. The cruelty of Joy’s sister (Elisabeth Röhm), for example, is never developed properly; there’s no information as to why she acts the way she does and it gets frustrating when there’s no room for any growth or maturity in she and Lawrence’s relationship. There are just a lot of instances from Joy Mangano’s life thrown in, but the path the film leads isn’t as clear as it needs to be and doesn’t make for a phenomenal narrative. Boasted by good performances, but ultimately lacking in a properly developed story.