‘Joy’: Playing mop whiz wrings great work from Jennifer Lawrence

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It’s a Cinderella story, complete with mop.

Writer-director David O. Russell has a reputation for mixing it up with actors on his sets — berating Lily Tomlin during “I Heart Huckabees,” a reported physical confrontation with George Clooney on the set of “Three Kings” — but Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper must really enjoy working for the undeniably gifted filmmaker, because on the heels of “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle,” this fantastic trio is once again appearing in a Russell film.

“Joy” is a mixed bag — part dark comedy, part dysfunctional family study, part inspirational tale — and it ends about 15 minutes after it could have ended. It’s not in the same league as “Playbook” or “Hustle,” but thanks to some memorable set pieces and the best performance by Jennifer Lawrence since her breakout role in “Winter’s Bone,” the sometimes-bumpy journey is worth your investment.

I wasn’t kidding about the whole Cinderella-mop thing. For you see, “Joy” is the fictionalized version of one Joy Mangano, the inventor of the Miracle Mop!

For real.

In flashback scenes set in the 1970s and narrated by Joy’s grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd), young Joy (Isabella Crovetti-Cramp) enjoys frolicking in the snow near her father’s auto repair garage and fashioning elaborate paper creations in her bedroom. She’s a dreamer — and a proponent of Girl Power. As she tells her best friend early on in this fractured fairy tale, “I don’t need a prince!”

But those dreams are put on hold after Joy’s father Rudy (De Niro) leaves her mother Terry (Virgini`a Madsen) for another woman. The family doesn’t merely separate; it shatters into a million little pieces.

Flash forward more than a decade. Terry has become a recluse, refusing to leave her bedroom and spending nearly every waking hour watching soap operas. Joy has a thankless job as a customer service rep for a low-end airline. She’s a divorced mother who is constantly reminded of her ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez), because he’s been living in the basement for the last two years.

Grandma Mimi also lives in the house. And now here comes her abrasive, verbally abusive, temperamental father, asking to move back in because his latest lover has shown him the door.

It’s a little bit of a house of horrors, is what it is.

Russell doesn’t quite spin this story as flat-out farce, but there’s a screwball zip to the tale, somehow creating laughs out of one pathetic situation after another. Tony is a mediocre singer who fancies himself as the next Tom Jones. (Why Tom Jones? Why not?) Terry is more invested in her soap operas than the lives of her family. Isabella Rossellini delights as Trudy, a wealthy widow who enters into a romance with Rudy, even as she cannot stop referencing her late husband.

At times “Joy” is just too sour to be enjoyable. Rudy has a mean streak, and even his attempt to comfort Joy after a setback is horrendously off-key. De Niro gives a fine performance, but he’s playing a one-note lout.

The same could be said of Joy’s older half-sister Peggy (Elisabeth Rohm), who has inherited her father’s venom and duplicity. She’s not funny enough to be a comic foil, and she’s not ingeniously devious enough to be a good villain.

Most of the delights of “Joy” are to be found in the second half, after Joy comes up with the idea of a reusable, self-cleaning mop, hand-crafts the device herself, and sets off on a mission to deliver this mop to the masses.

Remember, we’re in the late 1980s at this point in the story — right around the time a little network founded on the principles of Quality, Value and Convenience (that’s QVC to you and me) was gaining footing in a studio in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

Enter Bradley Cooper as Neil Walker, a QVC executive with an almost evangelical belief in the products he sells, the talent who pitch those products — and the folks at home who should call in RIGHT NOW TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THIS ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME DEAL!

That’s right: Cinderella takes her mop to QVC and tries to persuade Neil Walker to give her invention some air time before the clock strikes midnight on her last best hope to make something of herself.

The QVC scenes are hilarious without being condescending. Melissa Rivers cameos as … Joan Rivers. (Wrap your mind around that.) Neil seems like a good guy and he’s clearly drawn to Joy, but we’re not sure if he senses romance — or profit. Or both.

Joy’s quest will also take her to California and then to Texas. Every time she takes a step forward, someone or something is there to push her back.

No matter. She is a force and a half. Lawrence hits all the right notes in a role that calls for her to be a starry-eyed romantic; a cynic who has given up on love; a loving mother; a loyal friend; a daughter who can never please her father and has to care for her mother; and a fiercely determined inventor and wannabe entrepreneur with an almost obsessive drive to succeed. It’s a wonderfully layered performance that carries the film through its rough spots and sometime dubious detours.

[s3r star=3/4]

20th Century Fox presents a film written and directed by David O. Russell. Running time: 124 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for brief strong language). Opens Friday at local theaters.

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