Jennifer Lawrence in Joy

Director David O. Russell is back once again with his dream team of Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, this time throwing the pair into the true story of Joy Mangano, frustrated housewife turned millionaire inventor of the Miracle Mop.

Even before the first shot Russell is quick to establish the film’s feminist credentials, declaring it to be inspired by “daring women” everywhere, and the rest of the script places great emphasis on the additional obstacles placed in Joy’s way thanks to nothing more than her gender. From family members stepping in to take control to businessmen trying to take advantage, Joy is consistently underestimated and – predictably – proves them all wrong by the film’s end.

There’s a compelling story in Joy’s repeated battles against financial, legal and business problems, even if ‘Miracle Mop biopic’ lacks a certain immediate appeal. It’s a frustration, then, that Joy is Russell’s second misfire in a row after the messy American Hustle. Choppy editing throughout suggests a script in flux, while a consistently smug, self-satisfied tone is quickly grating. In his mannered, self-aware style Russell seems to be shooting for Wes Anderson territory, but Joy lacks any of the charm or visual flair of that director’s best works, though a colourful soundtrack does its best to fill in the gaps.

Jennifer Lawrence continues her run of stellar performances as the embattled Joy, pent up frustration at life’s daily injustices held in only by the patience of a saint. Even in her most triumphant moments Lawrence preserves Joy’s insecurity, depicting her slowly, painfully re-discovering the self-confidence beaten out of her by the world. At times her inestimable tolerance for the bickering family surrounding her strains credulity, but it’s a testament to Lawrence that she finds the humanity and frailty in a character that could all too easily have been a flawless pin-up for the film’s steady feminist message.

Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro in Joy

Fellow Russell regulars Cooper and Robert De Niro don’t fare so well. The former is left to make the most of a role as the head of infomercial network QVC, a role that serves plot more than it does character, seemingly inflated to make the most of Cooper’s star presence. De Niro is in well-worn territory as Rudy, Joy’s irate father with a heart of gold – a description you could probably apply to most of his filmography over the last decade.

There are moments of power and insight dotted throughout Joy, but they’re bogged down by self-satisfied sentiment. Cloying narration brings to mind the twee voiceover that similarly plagued Legend earlier in the year, while Joy’s thinly sketched family rob the film of most of its chances at genuine emotional impact. The plot doesn’t fare much better, peculiar pacing leaving it lurching about, rushing here and dragging there, most obviously in a denouement which jumps sharply into Joy’s eventual prosperity, loose ends left dangling.

Lawrence’s accomplished performance is enough to keep Joy’s head above water, but its substantial script problems are almost too heavy for one actor to keep it afloat. Title be damned, there’s not much joy to be found here.

Words by Dominic Preston