“Joy” reunites actors Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro with director/writer David O. Russell, the team that made the marvelous “Silver Linings Playbook.” Their latest collaboration looks like it was going to be the same beautifully crafted tale of quirky characters engaged in interesting activities. But there is no joy at the end of “Joy” as the talent of the mighty Russell runs out.
The film is based on the true story of Joy Mangano, a mother of two who is trying to find some peace and success in a world stifled by a father (De Niro) who would rather fall in love than be a business success, a mother (Virginia Madsen) whose emotional problems leave her confined to a small room watching soap operas, and a half-sister (Elisabeth Rohm) whose incompetence is only surpassed by her jealousy.
Joy is the perfect example of a potential not met. Even as a child, Joy had a creative mind. Family matters dampened that creativity until one day she hits upon what could be a life-changing idea. Joy creates a magical mop that she pitches to Neil (Bradley Cooper), the boss of the fledgling cable channel QVC.
The first half of “Joy” features the magical brilliance that made Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle” so rich and entertaining. He has the gift of being able to take real world people and events and make them come across with a fairytale quality.
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Madsen, an extremely under-appreciated actor, doesn’t just play a character who watches soap operas, but who retreats into that world as a way of escaping the deteriorating reality around her. She’s part charming and pathetic at then same time.
Russell’s attention to detail makes the fake soap operas more entertaining by the casting of veterans of the genre, Susan Lucci and Donna Mills, for the segments. They play the campiness that is daytime drama without going over the edge.
Mix this with the perpetually lovesick character played by De Niro, the passive aggressiveness of Isabella Rossellini’s character and the general middle American insanity of the world around Joy and the first half of “Joy” lives up to its name.
Then there’s the second half.
After Joy invents her magic mop and begins her battles with a sleazy manufacturer, her efforts to sell the product and her battle to hold on to her sanity within the insane family structure, the movie goes flat. Russell, who generally tends to take very unique directions with his movies, lets “Joy” turn into a TV movie of the week.
Can the spunky inventor find success? When will she fully stand up to her family?
Russell even gives in to painfully trite scenes. After years of emotional abuse and creativity stifling, Joy final snaps. To show that she’s ready to change, Russell has Joy cut off her long hair, a move that has been used so often in films and TV that it is a cliche.
Even when the script takes a turn for the mundane, it is elevated by the always dependable Lawrence. She gives the movie a solid core with her complete portrayal of this character. There are few actors who are as accomplished as Lawrence at projecting so much emotion without a single word of dialogue.
Without Lawrence, “Joy” would have fallen apart in the second half. She’s the only reason to keep watching. Even Russell must have realized his movie was losing steam because he abandons his slow simmer approach and rushes the film to a quick conclusion.
Lawrence never falters, even when the script does. One big mistake is that she and Cooper have shown great chemistry in past films. There are a couple of scenes where they get to show off the sparks, yet the pair aren’t together enough to fully capitalize on that power.
Watching “Joy” is like buy a $1 kitchen appliance. Everything starts great but falls apart way too early.