I've enjoyed the movies that director David O. Russell has made with an ensemble cast that capitalizes on the considerable talents of Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro. I was immoderately enthusiastic about both Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, which is why it saddens me to report that the third time is not quite a charm.
Russell's Joy, which showcases Lawrence, crosses the line from buoyant and bracing to marginal and disappointing.
First a word about Lawrence, who brings more than the required depth to the character of Joy Mangano, the woman who invented the Miracle Mop and built a small commercial empire around the kind of products that are pitched on channels such as QVC.
Mangano exemplifies the brand of entrepreneurial spirit and salesmanship that's required to reach shoppers armed with coffee cups in one hand and remote controls in the other.
But even Lawrence's performance, a mixture of discovery and determination in the context of a supremely dysfunctional family environment, can't quite overcome the weaknesses of an episodic script by Russell and co-writer Annie Mumolo (Bridesmaids).
On top of that, the rest of the cast doesn't always click, and that includes Cooper as head of QVC.
Russell's regulars are joined by Isabella Rossellini, perhaps miscast as a wealthy woman who dates Joy's divorced dad and finances Joy's early efforts. Virginia Madsen plays Joy's soap-opera addicted mother, a woman who seldom leaves her bedroom, and Diane Ladd appears as the grandmother who believes in Joy's exceptionalism.
Once again, Russell focuses on a chaotic family. De Niro's struggling character, has to move in with his daughter when his second wife gives him the boot. This means sharing the basement with Joy's ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez), a guy who fancies himself an up-and-coming singer.
Joy, who evidently takes in relatives the way others take in stray cats, soldiers on, sometimes arousing the jealousy of her half-sister Peggy (Elisabeth Rohm).
Pleasures pop up amid the story's clutter: Joy making her first awkward appearance on TV, for example. Or the way Rudy, no expert on relationships, criticizes his daughter for not having what he regards as a "proper" divorce.
But Russell too often gets wrapped up in the nuts and bolts of Joy's business, matters that -- at least in my book -- qualify as of minor interest. Did you know that the Miracle Mop, introduced at a price of $19.95, featured a 300-foot cotton loop that could be wrung out without actually touching the mop head? Do you care?
A late-picture introduction of legal troubles doesn't generate much suspense. We know Joy will emerge triumphant.
Moreover, the need to keep us rooting for Joy constrains any satiric bent that Russell might have brought to the world of home shopping.
Say this: Lawrence holds this somewhat scattered movie together, but it's Russell himself who raised the bar with two previous movies: This one doesn't quite measure up -- and I say that as someone who very much hoped it would.