The best, most radiant moment in David O. Russell’s Joy is the one you see captured in the ads for the movie, showing Jennifer Lawrence—as inventor, single mom and almost-failed entrepreneur Joy Mangano—with her head thrown back, gazing skyward at some falling snow, her eyes both protected and hidden by tinted aviator shades. If you’ve seen the poster, you almost don’t need to see the movie: It’s practically a visual summary of Russell’s relatively uncomplicated “strong woman triumphs over adversity” thesis. Strong women don’t necessarily make great characters—often they’re not required to be anything but symbols, which are the most boring things to play and to watch.
But to skip Joy would be to miss the pleasure of watching Lawrence—not because this is a particularly rich role for her, but because it’s fascinating to see what she does with a fairly undistinguished one. The performance, focused where it needs to be but largely just enjoyably freewheeling, is a reminder that Lawrence, only 25, doesn’t yet need to be great. Sometimes, especially for such a young performer, it’s enough to be casual.
Russell—who also wrote the screenplay, from a story he co-wrote with Annie Mumolo—begins Joy as a stylized fairytale, complete with a fairy godmother who just happens to be Joy’s grandmother: Mimi (Diane Ladd) is the one person who believes in her capabilities, from childhood right into adulthood. It’s Joy’s mother, Terry (Virginia Madsen), who holds her back: She spends her days lounging on her bed like a cartoon movie star, gorging on over-the-top Dynasty-style soap operas as a substitute for doing the work of living. Russell gives us a thumbnail sense of what Joy was like as a girl—she builds mini kingdoms for herself out of paper, asserting to her less-imaginative half-sister, Peggy, that she has special powers that obviate the need for “a prince.” We also get a glimpse of her dangling a small dog, precariously yet gently, from its collar; later, we’ll learn that in high school she actually invented a self-releasing dog collar, which her mother failed to patent for her.
Joy is liveliest when Russell is setting the scene for his heroine’s later success, as well as her trials: By the time she’s in her 20s, Joy already has two kids and an ex-husband, a not-so-successful Latin singer (played by the alluring Édgar Ramirez, star of Olivier Assayas’ 2010 bracing TV mini-series-turned-movie Carlos) who will remain her friend and supporter long after the couple’s split. When Joy hatches an idea for a self-wringing mop—the notion comes to her after she cuts her hands while cleaning up after a broken-glass disaster—her father, Rudy (Robert De Niro), an absentee dad through most of her youth, helps her get seed money from his rich girlfriend, Trudy (played by an imperious Isabella Rossellini). Rudy, Trudy and Peggy (the pleasantly sinister Elisabeth Röhm) give the appearance of helping Joy in her business endeavors, when in reality their motives are much more complex. Her relationship with Neil Walker (a peanut-butter smooth Bradley Cooper), the QVC shopping-network honcho who gives her her first break in the 1990s, is more constructive but no less fraught.
This movie is a machine with lots of moving parts: Joy is constantly coming up with half-wild, half-practical ideas, only to be thwarted by some bully who stands in her path—sometimes it’s a man, but not always. The problem isn’t that the scenario is unrealistic: Everything that happens in Joy is believable. But Russell fails in the subtlety department. You can hear the gears grinding away every minute: This story, of the woman who invented the Miracle Mop, Huggable Hangers, and lots of other awesome stuff, will inspire you or else. What is it about inspiration that so often fails to inspire? Russell closes the movie with a scene that saps all the juice from his lead character: At her best, Joy is a hustler and a dreamer in equal measure. By the end, she’s just a role model—her success has calcified into a kind of passive grandeur, and Lawrence doesn’t know how to play that.
But that’s to her credit. Lawrence is better at playing a fighter than a great lady worthy of our admiration—she’s an action verb in action. When we see her trying to hawk her newly invented mop in a K-Mart parking lot—some ladies stop to look but eventually move on, and that’s before the cops show up—desperation clashes with determination. Lawrence is wonderful at playing both: Her smallish, piercing eyes can show guardedness or heart-stopping openness, and she can shift from one to the other imperceptibly. It’s no surprise when Joy becomes a home-shopping success—we always knew she had that potential, kickboxing its way out. No wonder the phones start ringing off the hook. In the end, Joy is more slender and inconsequential than Russell probably intends it to be—it wears its ideas rather than embodying them. But Lawrence keeps the channels of communication open, every minute, with the audience. Joy is proof that she can sell us anything. Operators are standing by.