David O. Russell's "Joy" Can't Recover From Pitiful First Act

The ambiguous theatrical trailers for David O. Russell’s “Joy” undoubtedly left many a moviegoer wondering what all the fuss was about. The finished product will do little to alleviate their confusion.

Jennifer Lawrence (“The Hunger Games”) makes a fine Joy Mangano – inventor of the self-wringing Miracle Mop and eventual shopping channel superstar – and the complications of the life of an entrepreneur make for good dramatic fodder. The problem is that none of this enters the picture for nearly an hour, with David O. Russell appropriating his lead character to stage a bad screwball family comedy.

There’s no warning, no chance to hide from the storm; trouble strikes immediately. The picture’s dreadful framing device – a recurring in-movie soap opera – kicks things off so noxiously that it seems there’s no direction but up. Wrong. The familial hijinks that follow are bad even by modern day Robert De Niro standards (he plays Joy’s father Rudy) and scenes don’t end as much as they run into brick walls.

Between some egregious editing and thoughtless camera placement, act one comes off as though it’s duct-taped together, a speedily assembled workprint that no one thought to revise.

Or maybe Russell’s script was so addled that its early scenes were salvaged in post-production, a thought that makes his excellent “The Fighter” and exceptional “Silver Linings Playbook” seem like outright miracles. Parts of “Joy” come off like he’s never made a movie before, grasping so hard at air that straws would have been preferable.

Edgar Ramirez plays Joy’s ex-husband and perpetual best friend Tony and is saddled with some of the most embarrassing lip-syncing ever put to film, with a musical subplot that goes nowhere (all of the subplots go nowhere) and some painful comedic asides with De Niro. It’s not that Ramirez isn’t trying; it’s that he is trying in a role that doesn’t deserve him. Virginia Madsen fares similarly as Joy’s mother Terry, written here as a punchline of a character who’s ostensibly supposed to come off as aloof but instead comes off as a dullard.

In theory all of this family drama should build Joy up as an Erin Brockovich-esque shark, an underdog making good on her talent and drive. Instead, we’re not given much of an idea of who she is until the screenplay gets on with showing us via the invention of her mop.

The movie’s early failings are made crystal clear when the inner workings of a home shopping channel (QVC) prove far more compelling than any of its characters. Frequent Lawrence and Russell co-conspirator Bradley Cooper turns up as a QVC exec and suddenly everything turns around – partially a function of the movie finally being about something and partially because Cooper is just so damn charismatic.

Had Russell refocused his movie in the scripting stage, he might have had something special on his hands. Mangano is obviously an interesting person and her particular rags-to-riches story is both familiar and novel. This wasted narrative potential is made all the more frustrating when most of Mangano’s business successes are glossed over in a closing narration, accompanied by a jaw-droppingly condescending scene in which the now-millionaire hand picks a struggling family to be her next pet project.

“Joy” is a prime example of a filmmaker having no feel for either his subject matter or his audience, whiffing badly on what should have been an easy crowd pleaser. It’s not a lost cause (there’s too much good in the movie’s second hour) but it flirts early and often with disaster, ending up one of the year’s sloppiest misfires.

Once to the meat of the story, it nearly works. But those first fifty minutes are so tacky, so leaden, and so aimless that all the floor care intrigue in the world can’t save it.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: December 25, 2015
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: David O. Russell
Screenwriter: David O. Russell
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Edgar Ramirez, Bradley Cooper, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Elisabeth Rohm
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language)