David O. Russell’s films are filled with seekers and strivers and lovable misfits—American hustlers working hard to carve out their own oddball corner of the dream. Even for them though, a movie about a mop might feel a little quixotic.
Working once again with muse Jennifer Lawrence, Russell aims to adapt the real-life tale of Joy Mangano, a plucky but overwhelmed single mother whose falling-down house can barely contain her dysfunctional family. Her curdled Casanova of a father (Robert DeNiro) grudgingly shares the basement with her unemployed ex (Edgar Ramirez), while her catatonic mother (Virginia Madsen) loses herself in daytime soaps and her hostile half-sister (Elisabeth Rohm) seethes in various corners. But Joy has ideas, you see; she’s always been a smart girl, and a messy incident on the sailboat belonging to her father’s latest paramour leads to a Eureka moment: A highly absorbent, hands-free Miracle Mop designed to liberate housewives like her from linoleum drudgery. Cue the rocky but triumphant climb from double-mortgage penury to TV stardom on the then-nascent QVC. (That’s where Bradley Cooper fairly uselessly comes in.)
If only Russell trusted Mangano’s true story. Instead, he’s turned her life into a over-staged mess of awkward exposition, contrived dialogue, and characters so willfully unreal they feel acrylic. Lawrence is, once again, ridiculously young for the role (Mangano was nearly a decade older at the time) but also much better and more natural than the noteless part she’s forced to play. She can’t save a turkey though; in a season rich with cinematic options—Star Wars, Sisters, The Revenant—this is not the joy you’re looking for. C–