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'Joy' is full of whiplash changes in mood

'Joy' stars Jennifer Lawrence as Joy Mangano, who invented the Miracle Mop. The movie seems both overlong and truncated.

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'Joy' stars Jennifer Lawrence.

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“Joy,” the third partnership of Jennifer Lawrence and the writer-director David O. Russell, is a hectic free-for-all in which Lawrence, yet again, is asked to be bold and brassy. She plays real-life Joy Mangano, the woman who made her name inventing the Miracle Mop – the self-wringing, 300-foot cotton loop contraption that was a big hit in the 1990s on the QVC channel. Covering four generations of Joy’s very dysfunctional family, the movie is so knockabout that, when it’s all over, you may feel wrung dry yourself.

Joy doesn’t have much joy in her life. As a stretched-thin, divorced mother of two when the film opens, she maintains a wary camaraderie with her ex, Tony (Edgar Ramirez), a Tom Jones wannabe who takes up residence in the basement of the house she shares with her TV soap-opera-addicted mother, Terry (Virginia Madsen). Her father, Rudy (Robert De Niro), divorced from Terry, has split with his girlfriend, and so, for a time, he, too, is ensconced in the basement, despite his dislike of Tony. And then there’s grandma Mimi (Diane Ladd), who thinks Joy can do no wrong. Russell likes bouncing these people off each other, and, up to a point, the freneticism and the rapid-fire banter has a nutbrain verve. He’s a director who likes a lot of tumult.

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The trouble is, he never knows when to cool it. His model is likely the great writer-director Preston Sturges, who, in films such as “Hail the Conquering Hero” and “The Palm Beach Story,” raised verbal slapstick to heights of sophistication never achieved before or since. But Sturges understood that freneticism pays off better when there is ample downtime in between. In “Joy,” it’s almost all yammering all the time.

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Joy is a tough cookie who never really crumbles, even when it looks as if her Miracle Mop may not prove to be such a miracle after all. Throughout the film, she has no serious romantic attachments; what she really enjoys is showing off her smarts and beating the big boys at their own game. A pig-headed match-up between “Joy” and “Steve Jobs” would be a dead heat.

Although it’s fun to see her triumph over so many crumbums, all this hoo-ha makes her something less than a full-fledged heroine. Lawrence is terrific at playing tough, as she also demonstrated in her previous outings with Russell, “Silver Linings Playbook” and, especially, “American Hustle." But maybe it’s time for her to take a rest from him for a while. There’s a lot more to this actress than bold and brassy. 

Russell’s stock company also includes De Niro, whose performance as a rumpled regular guy with a crooked grin and a chip on his shoulder is overly familiar, and Bradley Cooper, playing the slickster QVC executive who gives Joy her big chance on the channel. The film’s confabulation of oddballs, which also includes Isabella Rossellini as Rudy’s new girlfriend and a major investor in the mop company, exhibits so many mood swings that Russell might as well have called the movie “Whiplash.”

I’m not saying that characters have to be inhabiting the same mood for an entire movie, or that people can’t be ditheringly unpredictable from moment to moment. It’s just that, for long stretches of “Joy,” I kept wondering what connective tissue Russell had left on the cutting room floor. The film, in the end, seems both overlong and truncated. Grade: B- (Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.)