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David O. Russell’s Joy gives Jennifer Lawrence a honey of a role as the overstretched, unfulfilled head of a zany household who, with a little resourcefulness and a lot of drive, reversed her fortune to become the personification of the American Dream.

Lawrence, already an Oscar-winner for Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, delivers her best onscreen performance since Winter’s Bone snared her first Oscar nod five years ago. And while Joy may be a minor picture for its director, the major performance from its star, who dominates every scene by simply playing a good person working hard to make her dreams come true, makes it worthwhile.  Their third collaboration (after American Hustle), is, perhaps, their least fully realized in scope and theme, but the movie is buoyed by Lawrence’s effervescent star power—and that’s enough.

While it is never explicit that Lawrence’s titular character is based on real-life Miracle Mop inventor and Home Shopping Network magnate Joy Mangano (the movie’s executive producer), Russell instead posits his empowerment fairy tale as one “inspired by the true stories of on several daring women.” Indeed.

Set outside Boston circa early 90s, Joy is the too-young matriarch to a dysfunctional cast of comically off-kilter, high-maintenance relatives. Her family, including two kids, a housebound mother (Virgina Madsen) addicted to soaps, a live-in, ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez) and cantankerous father (Robert DeNiro) are her proverbial crosses to bear (and support), and a convergence of never-ending headaches. The bright spot is her empowering grandmother (a terrific Dianne Ladd), who despite Joy’s failed marriage and the drudgery of her job as an airport counter agent, assures her that she her she is destined for greatness.

Everything changes with an epiphany that hers is a life half lived, and after slicing her hands on a broken glass, Joy comes up with an idea for a newfangled mop, thrust into being once Joy decides to channel her long-buried creativity into a prototype. But how to capitalize?

Enter the very funny Isabelle Rossellini as a wealthy widow and dad DeNiro’s new paramour, and before long Joy is hawking her mops in the K-Mart parking lot before a coincidence leads to a shot at QVC, whose hawkish president (Bradley Cooper, another Russell alum) reluctantly puts Joy in the spotlight.  But will she deliver? There are double-crosses, family resentments and stolen patents, but the beauty of this little movie is how Lawrence imbues Joy with an almost indefatigable, can-do attitude even when every invested dollar, and then some, has been lost.

While Mangano built an empire and her story’s details are not all included here (Russell’s approach was to composite his lead character), Joy is unmistakably a fairy tale of female empowerment so gratifying to see come true.

Since this is a Russell film, the ensemble is bar none, but to my eye the supporting standout is a welcome return from Rossellini, having a ball with her flamboyantly nouveau riche benefactress. DeNiro is also solid (though his work in Nancy Meyers’ The Intern this year was far more memorable), Cooper takes a backseat and Madsen, given little to do, acquits herself admirably.

Russell’s screenplay offers a cynical view of business as no place for naivete while makes warm accommodations for the possibility of a sincere friendship between Joy and her supportive ex-husband, played by a most appealing Edgar Ramirez. It also gently suggests that Joy’s abandonment of an early childhood creative spirit was a byproduct of a vicious divorce, so while relatively light, Joy doesn’t pull punches.

Chiefly, this is Lawrence’s show, and she is so good in this star turn, the kind of dominating and definitive portrait rarely seen nowadays, that she allows us to forgive the movie’s sometimes rambling structure and imperfect messiness.  Such is the power of a movie star, and Lawrence doesn’t so much use the above average picture as a star vehicle as elevate it to something quite touching and substantial.

What Joy says, sweetly, is that anyone, anywhere can change their life with a little inspiration and the will to do so.


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