What makes writer-director David O. Russell's best work, films such as "The Fighter," "Silver Linings Playbook" and "American Hustle," so thrilling is that each is a high-wire act that runs the moment-to-moment risk of tumbling to the ground. In "Joy," his latest, Russell has more trouble than usual keeping his balance.
Like some of those earlier films, "Joy" is based, albeit loosely, on a real story. That would be the life of Joy Mangano, an entrepreneur, inventor and QVC shopping network star with the mega-selling Miracle Mop and numerous other patented items to her name.
And, like "Playbook" and "American Hustle," "Joy" stars three actors — Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro — who are so on the director's wavelength that they've formed a de facto David O. Russell Repertory Company.
Lawrence, who plays Joy and appears in almost every scene, especially thrives here, but even her skill and determination can't stabilize a film that goes off in any number of directions and rarely feels confident about the kind of story it wants to be telling.
"Joy" apparently started life as a very different film, a more conventional biopic with a script by Annie Mumolo (who shares story credit with Russell). When the writer-director came on board, he broadened the narrative to include, among other things, ideas brought to mind by other remarkable women he'd known, leading to "Joy's" opening declaration that it is "Inspired by the true stories of daring women. One in particular."
While there's nothing wrong with any of this in theory, in practice what's resulted is not as it should be. Despite some quite engaging sections, "Joy" is, unlike previous Russell films, dragged down more than it is inspired by its chaotic ambience, a film whose variations in tone can't be overcome.
If "Joy's" theme is how much courage and tenacity it took for its heroine to climb out of a toxic personal situation, it unfortunately starts off on the wrong foot with uninvolving depictions of her woeful background that last way too long.
Except for grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd), Joy is presented as pretty much the only sane person in her extended family, the one who holds it together and gets stuff done amid relatives who give new meaning to the word dysfunctional.
Joy's mother, Terry (Virginia Madsen), is addicted to TV soap operas ("All My Children" mainstay Susan Lucci has a cameo) and fearful of leaving the house, while father Rudy, proprietor of Rudy's Truck & Auto Body, is a feckless romantic who leaves home too often and soon becomes involved with wealthy widow Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), who likes to begin sentences with a nod to "my late husband Morris."
As if this weren't enough, Joy's ex-husband and striving musician Tony (Édgar Ramírez) is still living in the basement, and half sister Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm) sabotages her sibling every chance she gets. Not only are these characters more tedious than they may sound, they monopolize "Joy's" first 45 minutes.
Then Joy, who has always enjoyed doing things with her hands, has a eureka moment while, no surprise, cleaning up someone else's mess. She envisions a mop made of 300 feet of continuous cotton loops, a mop that you could wring out without it ever touching your hands, the last mop beleaguered housewives would ever need. Sounds like ... a miracle.
The creation and manufacture of the Miracle Mop not only revitalizes Joy's life, it brings welcome life and interest to the film. Things get even better when Joy hears about something new, a televised way to sell products, and makes a connection with Neil Walker (Cooper), a top executive with the QVC (as in Quality, Value, Convenience) cable network.
Cooper, like Lawrence, is a past master of bringing energy and pizazz to Russell's situation, and the vivid heart of "Joy" is in the scenes where the two of them jointly discover the Miracle Mop's QVC potential (not to mention hanging out with Joan Rivers, played by daughter Melissa).
But after these high points, "Joy" does not go from strength to strength; it sinks into a morass of a different kind, as its protagonist faces so many irritating obstacles to inevitable success we get as frustrated as she does. Joy the person may be able to surmount all barriers; the film with her name on it is not so fortunate.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for brief, strong language
Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes