The typical rags-to-riches story concludes with dreams realized and a bright future ahead.
Leave it to David O. Russell and his perennial muse Jennifer Lawrence (they collaborated on “The Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle”) to poke around in the dark aftermath of dreams that come true.
“Joy” is inspired by the true story of Joy Mangano, a single mother who rose from poverty to multimillionaire after inventing the self-wringing Miracle Mop.
But Russell uses Mangano’s “inspirational” story as a launchpad for a mostly fictional comedy of dysfunction. Then he follows it up with a near tragic look at how success brings its own set of difficulties.
Joy (Lawrence) has a spectacularly messed-up family. For starters this young woman is perennially flirting with financial and personal disaster. She works as a ticket clerk for a big airline, a gig that results in daily insults from the flying public. And she’s about to be laid off.
At home she must deal with two children and a slew of bizarre relations. Her ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez), who aspires to be the Latino Tom Jones, lives in the basement, where he endlessly plans the big break that will never come.
Joy’s mother, Terry (an almost unrecognizable Virginia Madsen), refuses to leave her bedroom and spends most waking hours watching the soap operas she has carefully videotaped. (A running gag finds real former soap stars like Susan Lucci and Donna Mills appearing in the absurdly awful shows to which Terry is addicted.)
Joy’s father, Rudy (Robert DeNiro), operator of an auto repair shop and an Archie Bunker-ish racist, is once again on the romance market, his latest marriage having gone belly up. He is reduced to taking up an uneasy residence in Joy’s basement with his former son-in-law.
Joy’s stepsister Peggy (Elisabeth Rohm) has all sorts of sibling issues.
The only person in the house who seems halfway normal is Grandma Mimi (Diane Ladd), who has always predicted greatness for Joy and narrates the story — even from the grave.
Russell and Lawrence walk a fine line here between absurdity and genuine anguish. This isn’t belly laugh material; while it’s obviously comic, “Joy” takes a low-key approach.
Then Joy comes up with a self-wringing floor mop that doesn’t require the user to get wet or dirty. And from that point she’s on an emotional and financial roller-coaster ride.
With a second mortgage on the house and a loan from her dad’s new millionaire-widow girlfriend (Isabella Rossellini), Joy goes into production, turning the auto body shop into a mop factory.
But it isn’t until the manager (Bradley Cooper) of the QVC shopping network gives her a chance to peddle her product on nationwide TV that Joy’s rocket really takes off.
Watching this young woman’s rise to success after a lifetime of failure is uplifting. We’re rooting for her. Which makes it doubly upsetting when things go south — in part because of predatory patent claim jumpers — and all the folks who were singing her praises now write her off as a pathetic loser.
With a lesser actress in the central role “Joy” might not have worked. But Lawrence is so good at effortlessly establishing her character’s decency, ambition and sense of self that we happily stick with Joy’s exhilarating ups and anguished downs.
This is lesser David O. Russell, but still worth a look.
Read more of freelancer Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.
Rated PG-13. Time: 2:04.