‘Joy’ Review: Jennifer Lawrence Is Totally Miscast in This Business Biopic
Jennifer Lawrence was 24 when she shot Joy. Her character, Joy Mangano, was 34 when she invented the Miracle Mop and became one of the first stars of the QVC Network. This fact remains inescapable throughout Joy. Lawrence is too good of an actress not to be watchable in the part, but she’s totally miscast as a divorced mother of two who’s been repeatedly beaten down by life’s disappointments. This part was meant for the Jennifer Lawrence of 2025, not the one of 2015.
It’s hers now, presumably, because Joy was co-written and directed by David O. Russell, and Russell loves working with Lawrence regardless of the circumstances. Joy is their third consecutive film together, and it’s been hard to argue with the results thus far; both Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle became unlikely blockbusters, and Lawrence’s performances in them earned her two Oscar nominations and one Academy Award. That winning streak ends here, with a wildly uneven and tonally confused female empowerment story with garish supporting characters and a wandering focus.
After a dedication to “daring women” everywhere and a brief prologue narrated by Joy’s grandmother (Diane Ladd), the narrative proper begins with Joy at her wits’ end. Though Grandma Mimi believes Joy will someday become a powerful matriarch, at this point she’s barely keeping a roof over the heads of her kids, her lazy, soap-opera-obsessed mother Carrie (Virginia Madsen), and her impractical, aspiring musician ex-husband Tony (Édgar Ramírez). Things get even more crowded when Joy’s dad Rudy (Robert De Niro) gets kicked out of his house by his current girlfriend, and has to move into the basement with Tony. With too many mouths to feed and not enough money coming in, Joy’s family is anything but happy.
Fortunately, that’s when inspiration strikes. On an afternoon boat trip, she spills and breaks a glass of wine; cutting her hands to ribbons trying to sop up the mess convinces her there must be a better way to clean spills. Taking her daughter’s crayons, she sketches a mop made from a continuous loop of cotton, attached to a head that can be wrung out through out a device in the handle. Her product is better and safer than literally every mop on the planet. But convincing the world of the fact proves difficult. To start her business, Joy has to borrow money from Rudy’s new girlfriend (Isabella Rossellini), putting her deep into debt. Stores won’t carry the mop because it’s pricy, her part suppliers try to shake her down for more and more cash. Her only chance for financial survival comes in the form of a fledging cable network, QVC, where an idealistic producer (Bradley Cooper) becomes convinced that Joy and her mop could become a whole new business unto themselves.
There are a couple warm-and-fuzzies to be had watching Joy finally make good. Most of her business partners think they can take advantage of her inexperience because she’s a woman; the best scenes showcase Joy’s transformation from shy homemaking caterpillar to badass business mogul butterfly. But that’s really just one solid sequence in a two-hour film that’s mostly concerned with Joy’s loathsome family burdening her with their neuroses, scolding, and freeloading. The real Mangano managed to turn her personal struggles into enormous public success, but Joy never finds a comfortable way to mesh those two sides. And the scenes with Joy’s relatives are less satisfying retreads of the same families-weigh-great-people-down subtext of The Fighter, Flirting With Disaster, and a bunch of other David O. Russell movies. (Actually, The Fighter or Flirting With Disaster or American Hustle would all work as titles for Joy.) A flash-forward epilogue that shows the ultimate fates of all the main characters undercuts what little emotional high comes from Joy’s triumph over her adversaries in commerce.
Lawrence fares better than her co-stars, who are underserved by Russell’s thin screenplay, and fall into two categories: gross caricatures (like Elisabeth Röhm as Joy’s shockingly cruel half-sister Peggy) or complete non-entities (like Orange Is the New Black’s Dascha Polanco, whose entire character can be summed up by the phrase “Joy’s best friend”). Still, Lawrence is all wrong for the part of a middle-aged mom who finally finds her niche despite the best efforts of her family of naysayers. And when she’s not putting the screws to the jerks trying to muscle her out of business, the movie feels like a glossy infomercial for the Miracle Mop and QVC; there’s more drama and heartfelt emotion about the American dream on an average episode of Shark Tank. Joy has none of the energy or precision of any of Russell’s recent efforts. Not even Joy Mangano could invent a mop good enough to clean up this mess.