If the title “American Hustle” weren’t already applied to another David O. Russell movie, it could easily work for “Joy,” which plays like the less memorable B-side to that earlier effort. The triumphant story of American dreamer Joy Mangano, whose invention of the Miracle Mop in the early nineties saved her from toiling in obscurity, Russell’s latest distinctive comedy-drama has the usual signposts of his skill: An expertly written and performed ensemble piece, it moves along with the vibrantly caustic tone of the filmmaker’s own invention. But in this case, the material never quite keeps up.
Another idiosyncratic story of middle class perseverance, “Joy” tracks Mangano from her troubled childhood to her struggles living with her divorced parents and ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez) in a crowded Long Island household. It’s here that the busy-minded Italian-American woman conceives of an unorthodox solution to her restrictive lifestyle. While following her father (Robert De Niro in grimacing autopilot) on a date with his newfound squeeze (a wonderfully smarmy Isabella Rossellini), a shattered wine glass leaves her with bloody hands after she mops up the mess; in the aftermath, Mangano whips up the concept for a cotton-headed contraption that can be wrung out hands-free. If the concept anticipates an age of constant innovation, it also sets the stage for exploring a new era of marketing tactics, as Mangano fights her way for a spot on the shopping network QVC to push her new idea to the masses on her terms.
The high stakes gamble of Mangano’s mission, and the way it risks alienating her from her entire family, provide just enough material for “Joy” to maintain palpable levels of excitement as it builds to her initial success. At the same time, there’s a constant under-realized quality to the proceedings, as if the filmmaker lacked sufficient material and stuffed the holes with his usual routine — crowded scenes of brawling families with a combustible energy that’s always endearing to watch, even if it amounts to little on its own. The actual business history of Mangano’s rise interests Russell the least, no matter how much the story mandates its central role.
Rounding out the ensemble, Virginia Madsen plays Mangano’s dazed mother, who wastes her days away watching soap operas, the absurd plots of which eventually invade Mangano’s dreams. This device, along with the recurring voiceover narration of Mangano’s deceased grandmother, stand out as compelling attempts to complicate the narrative strategy by digging into the mythological dimensions of American life overshadowing Mangano’s individuality. The message comes across, but it’s marginalized by an obvious trajectory made evident from the opening moments, with a title card announcing that the movie has been “inspired by true stories of powerful women and one in particular.”
That’s all well and good, but having established Mangano’s inevitable triumph early on, Russell never generates any real sense of peril. Instead, “Joy” is loosely threaded together with slickly rendered sequences from various key developments in its subject’s life: Her courtship with her sweet-natured Latin American husband, supportive advice from her close pal (a sage-like Dascha Polanco), feuds with her father and various legal spats. Lawrence, amping up her typically zestful screen presence, provides a better glue for holding these scenes together than Russell’s rambling screenplay.
Ultimately, “Joy” settles into an engaging plot involving Mangano’s trip to QVC, where she confronts a pragmatic network executive (Bradley Cooper) and talks him in to giving screen time to promote her mop. As Mangano and her would-be collaborator circle the television studio and keep their eyes on the phones, the movie generates a formidable intrigue around the nature of this risky process: She knows she has something good, but doesn’t trust the system to sell it without her involvement, so she fights to get in front of the cameras. It’s an ideal outlet for the unflappable liveliness that Lawrence brings to every role.
Of course, she doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Though Cooper’s performance feels too suave for its own good, that’s part of the reason his scenes with Lawrence work, as Mangano calls the businessman on his disingenuous promises and forces her own plans on to national television. The platonic alternative to the pair’s charming romantic chemistry in Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook,” this coupling marks one of several moments when “Joy” hints at a much stronger movie comprised of more than a few cohesive scenes.
But such engaging tidbits give way to a rushed finale. Russell has never been America’s most daring filmmaker, but he has constantly refashioned classic formulas with a jubilant ironic tone to brilliant effect. “Joy,” by contrast, has been clobbered by sincerity, even as it often feels as though Russell had to grit his teeth to maintain the good-natured vibe.
Arriving the same year that a botched Russell project taken out of his hands and retitled “Accidental Love” was dumped on DVD, “Joy” at least fits within the particular confines of this distinctive auteur’s style. But it reduces them to a clutter of ingredients in need of a unifying idea. Ending with a shrug, “Joy” gives the impression that even Russell may have lost interest after a while. A sunny ode to capitalism, the movie is a coy advertisement of its own. In that context, it’s a whole lot better than one might expect, and loaded with talent unabashedly hawking their wares.
“Joy” opens nationwide on December 25.