In the raucous comedy Joy, the writer-director David O. Russell breaks with his habit of spreading the love among many characters and actors and concentrates on trying to build a pedestal to his frequent leading lady Jennifer Lawrence. This works well until the pedestal is completed and looks dismayingly like … a pedestal.
Russell is meant for more ramshackle, precarious structures. As American cinema’s foremost poet of disequilibrium, he has a gift for fusing psychodrama and screwball, keeping most of the former’s bite while letting the latter dance. At first, Joy seems to be the perfect milieu for him. The title character has gone from a young girl whose mind was teeming with ideas for inventions to a bedraggled single mom living with a glazed mother (Virginia Madsen) who won’t leave her bedroom and is glued to a peculiarly repetitious soap opera that’s an absurdist cartoon of the movie’s main drama. Her ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez) has never moved out — he lives in the basement — and her father (Robert De Niro) moves back in after he’s dumped by his second wife. The only balm in her existence is her grandma (Diane Ladd), who narrates the film and longs for Joy to free herself from this domestic morass.
There’s a wonderful three-ring-circus quality to life in the house, but it’s also corrosive to the soul. It makes Joy forget who she was, who she is. Driven to re-create herself, she devises a mop with a handy squeeze mechanism; pleads (and pleads) for start-up cash from her father’s new girlfriend (Isabella Rossellini), a wealthy but irritatingly smug widow; and talks her way into the headquarters of the burgeoning QVC network, persuading a sympathetic (but all business) executive (Bradley Cooper) to give her mop a shot.
Watching Lawrence trip over one obstacle after another and pick herself back up reminds you why she’s such a marvelous comic and dramatic actress: She can illuminate the struggle, amid chaos, to cultivate an inner stillness. This makes her the perfect muse for Russell, a director famous for flying off the handle and then ostentatiously meditating — a Buddha with a hair trigger. It’s his life quest to find the signal in the noise, but, fortunately for us, the noise holds its own.
Joy finds its rhythm when the desperate Joy becomes the on-air salesperson for her own invention, managing to exploit the brand of capitalism that previously held her back — and loses it shortly thereafter, when the movie becomes the story of all the crooks and parasites who take advantage of or cheat her. It hits its low point in a long scene in which her family (including a shrewishly undermining half-sister) take her apart so relentlessly that they seem demonic. She becomes a fighter — and then a saint of capitalism. I don’t think Russell has ever directed a scene as phony as the one in Joy’s office where she shows her abiding beneficence to a sweet young African-American couple. Equilibrium makes Russell a dull boy.
Joy. Directed by David O. Russell. Fox. PG-13.
*This article appears in the December 14, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.