As told by her grandmother (Diane Ladd), young Joy’s story begins at Rudy’s Bus and Truck metal shop, where the naturally creative girl entertains herself through paper models of forests and castles. She envisions a world of wonderment and special powers that transcend the mundanity of life in a small town, further helped by her grandmother’s regular words of encouragement. But as she grows up, Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) realizes that she’s fallen into maddening routines and hopeless mediocrity amidst a complicated circus of familial failures. Not only has she not achieved greatness, but she’s also stuck in a dead end job in a dead end life.
Joy’s mother (Virginia Madsen) acts like an invalid, spending all of her time in bed watching soap operas; her half-sister Peggy (Elisabeth Rohm) holds her in generally low regards, often making condescending remarks; and Joy’s ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez) lives in the basement – an uncomfortable arrangement, but one that allows him to help with their two children. And then her father Rudy (Robert De Niro) is dropped off by his current fling, to be similarly relegated to the basement as yet another overcrowding addition to Joy’s chaotic household. At times, Joy’s exasperation causes her outlook on real life to merge with the outrageous scenarios of the soap operas continuously playing on her mother’s television set. But when Rudy’s new girlfriend (Isabella Rossellini) provides the funds for Joy to manufacture and sell an invention – a self-wringing mop – Joy is enlivened once again with the hope of breaking free from the monotony and becoming the powerful matriarch her grandmother always knew she could be.
In this initially light, quirkily frantic, peppy, fast-paced comedy, it would seem that a little adversity can’t stop Joy from realizing fame and fortune. But this slice-of-life picture soon becomes a whirlwind of uphill battles and stupefying skullduggery, where businessmen are inherently evil and family members are hopelessly incompetent allies. In its scrutiny of manufacturing and marketing and commerce among cutthroat professionals, “Joy” takes its fragile, human characters and shakes them to their cores. But it knows how to manifest feel-good, inspirational moments too, imparting a zing and a sleekness to the overbearing nature of Joy’s discouraging collaborators (who should be part of her support system) and humiliating confrontations with lawyer-encircled fraudsters.
Joy’s true-to-life story (based on the real Joy Mangano, inventor of the Miracle Mop) is given director David O. Russell’s trademark eccentricities, full of editing gimmicks (like messing with the timeline); speedy conversations full of naturalistic hysteria; and relatable melodrama in ordinary settings, surrounded by opinionated family members who exhibit plenty of aggravating personality flaws. And yet, with all the editing techniques that Russell surely feels will elevate “Joy” to be something more artistic than a mere heartening tale of unlikely success, it’s those very additives that nearly detrimentally becloud the brilliance of the hugely likeable protagonist. But hiccups in style and pacing can’t bring down this strong female lead, brought to stimulating life by Lawrence’s easygoing, levelheaded acting and joyous embodiment of unwavering determination in the face of crippling economic – and psychological – hardships.