Jennifer Lawrence delivers a tough, engaging performance in “Joy,” a dramedy by director David O. Russell loosely based on the life of inventor and home-shopping pioneer Joy Mangano. In the title role of the infectiously plucky entrepreneur — who parlayed a gig hawking home-care products on QVC into the job of president of a multimillion- dollar company — Lawrence makes for a can-do heroine as incandescently watchable as Katniss Everdeen of “The Hunger Games” but with a Miracle Mop in her hands instead of a bow and arrow.
If only the movie were as mesmerizing as its star.
The film reunites Lawrence with her “Silver Linings Playbook” co-stars Bradley Cooper, playing a QVC executive and mentor to Joy, and Robert De Niro, as Joy’s cranky (and mostly unlikable) father. Written by Russell and Annie Mumolo, “Joy” lacks that 2012 film’s fizzy effervescence, settling instead for a veneer of self-conscious kookiness that does little to elevate the narrative beyond a made-for- cable rags-to-riches tale.
Like Russell’s last collaboration with Cooper and Lawrence, the Oscar-nominated “American Hustle,” “Joy” plays a little fast and loose with the facts that inspired Russell and Mumolo (“Bridesmaids”). The real Joy Mangano’s loyal ex-husband, for instance, who is played by Edgar Ramirez in the film, was not a Venezuelan singer, although he really did stand by her through thick and thin, as he does in Russell’s film.
The story itself, however, is more character sketch than movie, lacking the thematic gristle that gave “Hustle” audiences something to chew on while watching the action. Based on the Abscam sting operation of the late 1970s, that film used plot to explore a grand theme: the notion of truth and falsehood, and our American propensity to confuse the two.
“Joy,” which is narrated by the title character’s dead grandmother (Diane Ladd) — a technical cheat that’s more irritating than inspired — makes a similar effort, touching on the nature of time itself and the unpredictability of life. But those ideas feel like an afterthought, something spooned over the story like sauce after it’s been brought to the table, rather than juices rendered by the narrative meat.
Part of the problem is undercooking.
“Joy” is an inspirational tale, no doubt, introducing us to Joy when she is a frustrated divorcee looking back on a promising life that has been squandered in dead-end jobs and looking after her seemingly agoraphobic mother (Virginia Madsen). Always a can-do kid, Joy never pursued her dreams, until she hits upon an idea for a new- fangled, easy-wring mop after wrestling with one that she uses to clean up spilled wine, cutting her hands on the broken glass. (If this doesn’t seem like a life-changing idea, you haven’t watched Joy sell it. Lawrence appears to believe in the product as much as Mangano must have.)
But that hardly seems like enough to hang a David O. Russell movie on. True to form, the film is filled with great, over-ripe performances, particularly from Isabella Rossellini, who plays the supremely self-confident, well-to-do girlfriend of Joy’s father, and one of Joy’s early financial backers. But a quirky supporting cast and a modern-day Horatio Alger story aren’t enough.
Even Lawrence, in the end, is a letdown. As entertaining and committed as she is — and she’s easily the best thing about “Joy” — the actress ultimately can’t sell a souffle that’s half baked.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains brief crude language. 124 minutes.