*** (out of five)
David O. Russell’s latest end-of-year collaboration with Jennifer Lawrence feels like a project that seriously lost its way along the production line. Lawrence plays Joy, a divorced mom of two trying to keep a mad suburban (New Jersey?) household together: her ex-husband lives in the basement; her mother lives (literally) in her upstairs bedroom, addicted to soap opera; and her dad has arrived on the doorstep, hurled out by the women he left her mother for, and needs to move in. Observing all this, and providing (extremely sparse) narration is Joy’s grandma, Mimi.
Mimi is played by Diane Ladd, and that narration, Ladd’s prominent billing, and a major plot development signal that, once upon a time, the relationship between Joy and her was meant to be the dominant one in the film. But along the way Mimi got sidelined, and now barely registers, a ghost on the margins of this frenetic household. A wispy Ladd can’t hope to compete with Robert De Niro as Joy’s dad Rudy, either, but Joy and his relationship is meandering rather than dramatic. Likewise, a competitive, at times toxic relationship between Joy and her half-sister Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm, in a very strange performance) sputters and spurts. The film keeps shifting focus, or, more bluntly, keeps dropping the dramatic ball.
Joy invents a mop and gets involved with the early days of the Home Shopping Network, run by eager beaver Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper, very earnest). This happens halfway through, and for a while the movie picks up, and indeed, in one sequence that’s the equal of anything Russell (and Lawrence) has ever done, it soars. Then, like a clipped eagle, it spasmodically jerks and loses its direction again, ending in a kind of plonking mess.
Nevertheless, Lawrence makes it watchable, and often charming. She’s in every scene and, through sheer force of will and talent, she pulls you through. I feel Russell’s script wasn’t ready, and he relied on Lawrence to do what she’s done – save the movie. That’s a heavy burden and an unfair one. It’s a shame, because with her operating at this calibre, and on such an original idea, the ingredients were ripe for something truly special, rather than meandering, inconsistent and jerky. It’s worth seeing, but it’s not worth awarding.