Joy is an odd duck of a movie. It comes with impeccable credentials, yet when it’s over you’re left wondering why filmmaker David O. Russell thought this material was worthy of a feature film. It’s not that the story of Joy Mangano (never named, although she is credited as one of the executive producers) isn’t dramatic or unpredictable. But while it is crammed with incident and unusual characters, it doesn’t offer larger lessons or truths beyond platitudes: believe in yourself, don’t be easily discouraged, Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Jennifer Lawrence brings her considerable star quality to the central role of a woman who’s struggling to get by, raising kids with no help or money to spare, an ex-husband who won’t move out of her basement, an agoraphobic mother who watches soap operas all day, a jealous stepsister, and a father whose love and support bend with the wind.
Then one day she comes upon an idea and puts herself forward as an entrepreneur. In most movies, this would be the pathway to a happy ending, but Joy still has many detours ahead for its plucky protagonist—and us in the audience.
It’s the high-caliber cast that keeps us watching: Lawrence is supported by Robert De Niro, Edgar Ramirez, Virginia Madsen, Elisabeth Rohm, and Isabella Rossellini. Their lives have no purpose, and their quirks and peccadilloes chip away at Joy’s sanity on a daily basis. Living with them is such a trial that somehow her ultimate success isn’t as satisfying as it ought to be. We’re just glad she survived at all. Bradley Cooper shines in a small but significant role, and Melissa Rivers contributes an amusing cameo as her late mother Joan.
Joy is never boring, but its meandering nature leaves us feeling curiously unmoved. In his determination to be unconventional, David O. Russell has jettisoned some of the building blocks that make a biopic work.