In most of his eight films, choreographer of chaos and screwball scion David O. Russell has assembled boisterous, buoyant casts. His manic ensemble players, like those in Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, carom off one another, their high-pitched energy keeping the movies bustling and busy. Plenty of characters still crowd the frame and clamorously vie for our attention in Joy, Russell's latest, loosely based on the life of Joy Mangano, the now 59-year-old inventor of the Miracle Mop. But the director seems to be trying to emulate what used to called the "woman's picture," a genre exemplified by Mildred Pierce (1945), another tale of a female entrepreneur. Russell has built the film around his regular troupe member Jennifer Lawrence -- who is burdened by the banalities littering Joy's script.
Many of the movie's platitudes revolve around family: Joy, which follows its Long Island-born heroine from her early 20s to roughly her mid-40s, devotes much of its running time to illustrating the shopworn idea that our closest kin can be our stealthiest saboteurs. Joy still lives in her childhood home, a two-story structure crowded with three generations, including her beloved grandmother (Diane Ladd, who also narrates) and her own two tiny kids.
"I don't want to end up like my family," Joy laments, her declaration echoing the theme explored in The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook (if not the words of probably every person who's ever sat in a therapist's office). Those earlier films elevated -- or at least enlivened -- that truism via the outrageousness of many of the players. But the disorder found in Joy is a reflection only of odd tonal shifts in the film itself.