On paper, David O. Russell’s new film, “Joy,” looks perfectly straightforward, even square. It’s a bootstrap-capitalist fable, a tale of adversity overcome and rags exchanged for riches, a case study in success suitable for a self-improvement seminar.
But Mr. Russell likes to tell conventional stories in unconventional ways. In the chapter of his career that began with “The Fighter” (2010), he has emerged as something of a genre magician, able to make formulas and clichés disappear behind a smoke screen of artful misdirection. “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012) was an assembly-line romantic comedy tricked out with a wild paint job and a souped-up, custom-built engine. “American Hustle” (2013) was a caper movie blown up into a pop opera. “The Fighter” itself — the movie “Joy” most resembles — was a boxing picture with an irregular heartbeat and a wildly talented cast.
Like Micky Ward, the striving pug played by Mark Wahlberg in that movie, Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence) finds herself thwarted and undermined by her own family. In the film’s opening scenes, her various relations nearly erase her altogether, blocking Ms. Lawrence’s quiet incandescence with ugliness and noise. The divorced mother of two young children, Joy left college when her parents split up and now contends daily with a small army of needy narcissists. Her mother, Terry (Virginia Madsen), lies in bed all day watching a soap opera (a fake one that Mr. Russell has cast with real-life soap opera stars). Rudy (Robert De Niro), Terry’s ex-husband, acts like a helpless child when he’s single and like an entitled patriarch when there’s a woman in his life. Joy also has a passive-aggressive sister (Elisabeth Rohm) and an ex-husband of her own, who is living in her basement until his singing career takes off.
All of this information is conveyed in Mr. Russell’s breathless, breakneck style. The camera never stops moving, the people never shut up, and the resulting buzz is both stimulating and enervating. There are a few bright spots and calm moments in Joy’s drab, frenetic life. Her grandmother, Mimi (Diane Ladd), believes in her (and provides benevolent voice-over narration). Joy’s ex, Tony (Édgar Ramírez), is actually a pretty nice guy and is able, like Amy Adams’s character in “The Fighter,” to be an ally against the familial back stabbers.
Just when you begin to wonder where the movie is going — Toward domestic comedy? Second-chance romance? Lurid dysfunction? — Joy has an idea. Sketching with her children’s crayons, she invents a new kind of mop, the kind that can be wrung out without touching the head. (This household convenience really exists, and the character is very loosely based on its inventor and her career.) Flush with entrepreneurial zeal, Joy borrows money from her father’s new companion (a supremely haughtyIsabella Rossellini), works out the patent and supply-chain issues, and prepares to revolutionize American floor cleaning.
It’s not so easy, of course. And if “Joy” seems to move toward a foreordained conclusion, it zigzags and covers its tracks along the way, sending its heroine on a roller-coaster ride of raised hopes and brutal disappointments and playing tricks with the audience’s expectations. What kind of spark will ignite between Joy and Neil Walker, a big shot in the world of home-shopping cable television? Since he’s played by Bradley Cooper, the answer could be anything.
But the movie, in all its mess and glory, belongs almost entirely to Ms. Lawrence. She is the kind of movie star who turns everyone else into a character actor. This is not a complaint but an acknowledgment of both her charisma and her generosity. The rest of the cast members have the freedom to be weird, awful and lovable in spite of themselves, to orbit eccentrically around her celestial presence. Mr. De Niro and Ms. Rossellini in particular seem to be having the time of their lives playing parental grotesques who might have wandered out of a Roald Dahl novel.
And Mr. Russell gives this meat-and-potatoes parable of upward mobility, set in the early 1990s, a children’s-book quality. I don’t mean that the story is simplified, but rather that its magical, improbable and cruel elements are heavily underlined, so that Joy feels more like a princess laboring under a terrible spell than like a struggling working-class mother. The trolls, witches and ogres she must beguile and vanquish are, for the most part, her own kin. She is, like a fairy-tale hero or heroine, on a long and complicated quest, relying on spells and charms as well as her innate goodness to deliver her.
It can be argued that Ms. Lawrence is miscast, that she’s too young, too glamorous, insufficiently dented by life’s hard knocks. It can also be argued: So what? Joy’s Cinderella qualities suit her perfectly, and she has the rare ability to combine radiance with realism. Like some of the great screen goddesses of old — for some reason, Lauren Bacall seems like the best point of comparison — she seems at once impossibly magnetic and completely down to earth, regal and democratic, ordinary and perfect.
The movie struggles to keep up with her. Perfection does not lie within the scope of Mr. Russell’s chaotic methods, and “Joy” can wear you out even as it tries to lift you up. The pursuit of happiness is a lot of work.
“Joy” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). A lot of messes to clean up. Running time: 2 hours 4 minutes.