Intentionally or not, David O. Russell’s pleasing new empowerment-com is perfectly represented by its emblem, the Miracle Mop. The movie begins as an enjoyable mess, with a broken/imperfectly mended Long Island clan incessantly squabbling, four generations under one leaky roof. “I don’t want to end up like my family,” despairs Joy (Jennifer Lawrence), the tireless Ms. Fix-It and conciliator of the Manganos, her blouse stained and hair mussed, her prospects sadly diminished from childhood promise. Then that mess is miraculously mopped up by our heroine. Order is established, a fortune is made, and Joy finally triumphs as a successful ’90s businesswoman.
Yet I prefer the mess of Joy’s first half, and that’s where Russell and his fine cast—including Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Diane Ladd, Edgar Ramirez, Isabella Rossellini, and Virginia Madsen—do their best work. The director is famous for shouting off-camera suggestions and lines at his performers. If the dialogue track is later stripped of this coaching, you can imagine his instructions. “Jennifer, hit the floor harder with that claw hammer!” “Bobby, play it bigger and broader!” “Ms. Rossellini, could you make the Italian accent more hammy?” So noisy and fractious (both Joy and her mother are divorced), these scenes achieve an unlikely comic harmony. Russell has a gift for screwball (recall Flirting With Disaster), and he really embraces the theme of creativity coming from chaos—precisely how he runs his sets.
Joy is understandably frustrated with this pandemonium, which the movie contrasts with the soap-opera fantasies—starring Susan Lucci!—watched obsessively by her housebound mother (Madsen). These soaps haunt Joy’s dreams until her Miracle Mop gains her access to the dream factory of QVC, the Pennsylvania studio run by retail maestro Neil (Cooper). It’s like Oz for Joy, and there she even meets fellow vendor Joan Rivers (played by daughter Melissa Rivers). Neil is the wizard—though not a love interest—who patiently explains how Hollywood is his model: Together they will sell cleanly domestic fantasy via phone bank. (Al Gore hasn’t invented the Internet yet.)
Indefatigable Joy’s determination never really falters. Even as the movie bogs down in product development, supply chains, manufacturing molds, and patent law, the outcome is never in doubt. Joy steamrolls every obstacle; and as she tidies up, Joy becomes less anarchic and interesting. Russell obviously means his movie to be a salute to strong, can-do women who succeed without men. Joy is relentlessly positive and uplifting, well-timed to the holidays, yet it’s honest enough to admit that no holiday gathering—not for the quarrelsome Manganos, not for the Ward-Eklund clan of The Fighter—is ever going to be perfect. What you like best here are the family imperfections that Russell transforms into strengths.