As a child, Joy Mangano (Isabella Crovetti-Cramp) wants to be an inventor. Fast-forward a decade and the adult Joy (Lawrence) pins all those hopes on her latest gizmo, a self-wringing mop.
George Bush Sr. once observed that American families should be less like The Simpsons and more like The Waltons. God knows what he would make of the Manganos, a small-town clan in a more-or-less permanent state of chaos, with a divorced mum (Virginia Madsen) glued to soap operas, her daughter’s ex-husband (Edgar Ramírez) living in the basement and a volatile dad (Robert De Niro) at the front door looking for a sofa to crash on. And even the Simpsons didn’t have an outdoor shooting range just round the corner.
The lodestar in this head-spinning universe — Lisa in a world of Homers — is Jennifer Lawrence’s Joy Mangano, the heart of a story that was forged from real-life by Bridesmaids writer Annie Mumolo and reshaped by David O. Russell into an offbeat and half-successful skew on the American dream. We meet Joy as a ceaselessly imaginative child, then pick up with her, three kids later and still determined to invent and create, with Lawrence stepping into her harried shoes.
As the opening credits establish, this kinda-biopic is “inspired by the stories of daring women”, and Lawrence’s name increasingly belongs on any such list. Even in an ensemble of this calibre, she holds the screen as the gutsy entrepreneur-in-the-making, irrepressible in the face of constant discouragement and, at one point, utterly bereft as the threat of financial doom begins to suffocate. It’s a performance simmering with controlled passion, and a likely awards favourite.
Nowadays, of course, Joy would just pitch up on Dragons’ Den and Duncan Bannatyne would be in for 30 per cent, but here her revolutionary cleaner-upper leads her to QVC, a burgeoning home-shopping channel run by Bradley Cooper’s hard-but-fair businessman. Easily the most enjoyable chapter in a jerkily episodic tale, Joy’s baptism into the art of TV-shilling is both horribly awkward and hugely watchable. How can she sell herself in a live television environment where power-dressing prevails? And will her mop shift 50,000 units before all is lost? It’s a race against time, only with Joan Rivers (played by her daughter, Melissa) on the stopwatch.
Cooper drifts handsomely in and out, while kudos to Russell for again locating the keys to Robert De Niro and drawing an entertainingly gruff turn from him as Joy’s doubting father. Virginia Madsen, sporting the year’s uncoolest specs, pulls off a rare blend of ferociousness and passivity as her housebound mum.
Somehow, though, it feels less than the sum of its stellar parts. Occasional dips into surrealism — there are echoes of Buñuel and Lynch as Joy imagines her family stepping into her mum’s favourite soap — make for an uncomfortable fit with such conventional material, while the film only half commits to its voiceover narration. There’s plenty of story here, but Russell never quite nails down a consistent way of telling it.
Another dazzling Jennifer Lawrence performance anchors a blue-collar parable that boasts some inspired moments but never quite gels.