There’s about 30 minutes in the middle of “Joy” where the movie finally and fully lives up to its title. The rest is, for better and for worse, a David O. Russell family reunion, as noisy and fractious as “The Fighter,” “American Hustle,” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” only with less reason to be so.
It’s the dawn of the 1990s and Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence), a New York-area single mother with a head full of ideas, has invented a new kind of mop. She calls it the Miracle Mop and it’s going precisely nowhere until she talks her way into the West Chester, Pa., headquarters of cable’s QVC Network. There she meets Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), an executive who believes in the promise of home shopping with the fervor of a religious zealot who sees the Rapture coming.
He tours Joy around the QVC studios, the camera tracking through the hive of on-air shilling as if this were “Goodfellas” and we’d just entered the nightclub. (Over on one soundstage is Joan Rivers, deliciously played by the late comedian’s daughter Melissa.) You can see it in Joy’s eyes: Her universe expanding with possibilities, herself at the center of the Big Bang, holding a mop. The story is based in true events; Mangano would go on to become one of the most successful businesswomen of the past two decades.
The QVC sequences in “Joy” just about give you a contact high, so juiced are they with a quintessential kind of American freedom — the freedom to sell your wares by selling yourself. And Joy is a natural at selling herself, a harried but savvy homemaker talking to all the other women out there, racking up the unit sales by treating her unseen audience as equals. The movie celebrates Mangano’s business smarts and her eye for an invention, but its most subversive notion is that home shopping is both a communion of sisterly consumerism and the only place a female entrepreneur can build a beachhead in this country.
The rest of “Joy,” by contrast, illustrates what the heroine is up against — her relatives. You have to wonder what Thanksgiving was like at the Russell house, because the director’s vision of family is so consistent from movie to movie: They’re the people we have to climb over to find ourselves and they delight in making the climbing as rocky as possible. Lawrence’s Joy is the one visionary in a house full of narcissists: a blowhard mooch of a dad (Robert De Niro, reprising his performance from “Silver Linings Playbook”), a whiny mother addicted to soap operas (Virginia Madsen), a friendly layabout of a divorced husband (Edgar Ramirez) who won’t move out of the basement, a half-sister (Elizabeth Rohm) seething with competitive envy. Only Joy’s childhood friend Jackie (Dascha Polanco of “Orange Is the New Black”), her wise old grandmother (Diane Ladd), and her young daughter (played by twins Aundrea and Gia Gadsby) are wholly in her corner.
Russell repeatedly flashes back to the young Joy (Isabella Crovetti-Cramp) envisioning a life of “making things for people,” with no need for a prince, thanks. And then it settles into her present with a sigh, Lawrence’s shoulders bent and forehead bowed as she struggles in a thankless job with a home full of freeloaders. Her mother’s soaps — freshly enacted by a show-within-the-film cast that includes Donna Mills and queen Susan Lucci herself — feel more vibrant than anything in Joy’s reality.
“Joy” charts its working-class heroine’s fight to reclaim her dreams by way of the Miracle Mop, her family sowing doubts all the way to the top and angling for a piece when she gets there. This is nearly as frustrating for the audience as it is for Joy, because Russell’s idea of structuring a scene is to put everyone in a room and have them yell at each other. That includes Isabella Rossellini as Joy’s father’s new girlfriend, a wealthy widow who reluctantly bankrolls the invention; Rossellini’s having fun here, but the part’s far beneath her.
Cooper’s cable executive isn’t offered as a love interest but he is the only businessperson with any faith in the title character; his and Lawrence’s scenes together glow with the energy of two dreamy hustlers. The back half of “Joy” charts its heroine’s growing confidence and crests with a sharp, satisfying scene in which she shows all she has learned about survival — and then it leaps ahead in a narrated epilogue that feels edited down from an intended fourth act. The movie’s a shambles, alternatingly agreeable and aggravating, held together by our interest in its heroine and by Lawrence’s tremendously sympathetic performance. This is her third film with Russell. Maybe it’s time for her to leave home, too.
★ ★ ½
Directed by David O. Russell. Written by Russell and Annie Mumolo. Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Virginia Madsen, Diane Ladd, Isabella Rossellini, Edgar Ramirez.
At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 124 minutes. PG-13 (brief strong language)