“Joy” is an ode to the American dream and, more important, the American housewife, starring a dependably steely Jennifer Lawrence as a version of Joy Mangano, the Long Island mother of three whose design for the self-wringing Miracle Mop turned her into a multimillionaire. Unlike Mangano’s invention, “Joy” is a bit unwieldy and hard to get a handle on. At its best, though, it’s a smart, funny, sensitive portrait of the kind of woman whose role in both film and life is often ignored.
Directed by David O. Russell, who co-wrote with Annie Mumolo (“Bridesmaids”), “Joy” introduces its heroine as a woman stumbling on life’s treadmill. She’s a dutiful daughter to her semi-lunatic parents (Robert De Niro and Virginia Madsen, both terrific) and breadwinner for her children and rather likable ex-husband, Tony (Edgar Ramirez). Grandma Mimi (Diane Ladd) provides unnecessary narration, but the film’s early scenes vividly illustrate Joy’s exhausting existence. “I’m just going to close my eyes for a bit,” she says, then sinks into the comatose sleep of the woman who does it all. Even playing a doormat, though, Lawrence conveys Joy’s inner toughness; we know we’ll see it soon enough.
Using her daughter’s crayons, Joy (no relation to Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano) designs her now-famous mop, then hits up her father’s girlfriend (a beguilingly strange Isabella Rossellini) for seed money. The growth of Joy’s homespun business, a mess of patent laws and shady manufacturers, is fitfully entertaining, but “Joy” hits its stride with the arrival of Neil Walker, an executive at the fledgling home-shopping channel QVC who gives Joy her life-changing chance. Walker, a blue-eyed true believer in capitalism, played by a compelling Bradley Cooper, vocalizes some interesting ideas about American democracy, commerce and social mobility. “I believe,” he says, “that one day television will be by and about regular people.”
“Joy” could have easily mocked its heroine as a symbol of middle-American consumerism. The film has its laughs, but none come at Joy’s expense. Lawrence plays her with grit and mettle, something she’s famous for both on-screen (“The Hunger Games”) and off (as a proponent of equitable pay for women in Hollywood). Although “Joy” can’t quite decide what it wants to be — the studio insists it’s not a biopic, though clearly it’s not not one — we never doubt the determination and inner strength of Joy herself.