Joy, film review: Jennifer Lawrence cleans up in American Dream tale

(12A)​ David O. Russell. 124 mins Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, Isabella Cramp, Édgar Ramírez

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The Independent Culture

Joy is the best film you will ever see about the manufacture of mops. The latest feature from writer-director David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle) is a quirky but very perceptive comedy-drama made in Russell's usual freewheeling style. Joy again stars Jennifer Lawrence, who is fast becoming Russell's muse. This is a determinedly blue-collar affair that takes as its motto the line (repeated several times) that "in America, the ordinary meets the extraordinary every day".

Lawrence plays Joy Mangano, a struggling single mom with a supremely dysfunctional family. Her mother Mimi (Virginia Madsen) is bed-bound and spends her days watching soap operas on TV. Her divorced father, Rudy (De Niro), shares the basement with her own ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez), a would-be nightclub singer whose career has never amounted to anything.

Joy is at the bottom of the heap, one of America's losers. She can barely afford her mortgage. The plumbing in her home doesn't work. This, though, is a film "inspired by the true stories of daring women, one in particular". In the course of the movie, Joy pursues her own version of the American Dream. Her moment of inspiration comes when she shreds her hands while trying to clean up shards of broken glass on the deck of the yacht belonging to her father's wealthy new girlfriend (Isabella Rossellini in imperiously comic form.)

Lawrence tackles the woebegone mum with exactly the same mix of fieriness and gumption she brought to her role as Katniss in The Hunger Games. Instead of a bow and arrow, her weapon here is the "Miracle Mop" she has designed and hopes to sell on a TV shopping channel. As she boasts, it is "10 times more absorbent than any other product on the market".

Russell's zany, offbeat approach is a little disconcerting. At times, he comes close to patronising and caricaturing Joy and her relatives, all of whom seem uniformly eccentric. However, this is no suburban fairytale about an unemployed housewife miraculously making it big. One of its strengths is its very frank portrayal of the American way of doing business.

"You were broke and bored and had an idea. So what? Lots of people have ideas," Joy is told. The trick is to be ruthless enough to enforce copyright, sort out distribution contracts and make sure manufacturers don't swindle you or steal your patents. Mops may seem like the most banal household items imaginable but when Lawrence's Joy is in front of camera selling them, she takes on an unlikely glamour and star quality. As the shopping channel boss (Bradley Cooper) tells her, "It's about the hands and the voice."

The film is narrated in folksy style by Joy's grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd), the only one who believes in her. It is full of knockabout schtick that you'd expect to find in a sitcom. Nonetheless, alongside the clowning, the film offers us a rousing story of a self-made woman who overcomes every setback in her bid to launch her own business.