His last film, “American Hustle,” took the Abscam scandal of 1978 — where FBI agents posed as fake Arab sheikhs anxious to buy off public officials to take down New Jersey power brokers — and tracked its wild excesses through the shenanigans of low-rent con artists
Before that “Silver Linings Playbook” played the struggles of a bipolar sufferer as romantic sit-com while “Three Kings” captured the insanity of war, and in particular the Gulf War of 1991, in a mad-dog satiric style with echoes of Robert Altman and Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22.”
His new film “Joy” charts the rise of Joy Mangano, the American entrepreneur known for inventions such as the self-wringing Miracle Mop and Huggable Hangers. This does not immediately suggest a film comedy or for that matter a film drama. But Russell zeroes in on her early days, when this divorced mother with three kids nearly had her American Dream derailed by fraud and betrayal.
The nearest thing to “Joy” might be Steven Soderbergh’s “Erin Brockovich,” also about a divorced mom with three kids, where her legal victory and takedown of industrial polluters got treated as a vigorous though serious comedy.
“Joy” begins as pure sit-com, moves into inspirational Only in America territory, then detours into serious melodrama with Joy experiencing heartbreaking setbacks as legal difficulties mount and bankruptcy looms. The film then climaxes with a gotcha! moment rights out of “American Hustle” and a crisp return to screwball mode.
It’s uneven, for sure, and not in the same league as “American Hustle” or “Three Kings.” But an all-star cast of such Russell regulars as Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro along with Édgar Ramirez, Virginia Madsen and Isabella Rossellini sock the comedy over with fine panache. Plus Russell’s Scorsese-influenced style of swooping cameras and fast-talking characters keep the ball rolling every minute.
The challenge for Russell (who co-wrote the script with Annie Mumolo) is how to herd so many characters — Joy’s on-screen family alone crosses four generations — and thorny plot developments into a two-hour movie. Well, you can’t really or at least not in a manner that gives everyone a fair shake and robust character development.
So what happens is that a character treated as fodder for laughs in act one turns out to be a sharp cookie in act three without your witnessing any maturation into sagacity. Or Russell will connect the dots on a subplot only for you to realize those dots were never visible in the first place.
One feels slightly churlish pointing this out since “Joy,” in the end, is a fun movie and a fun movie that takes a chance on an unusual true story without benefit of a best-selling book or the notoriety of its heroine.
Nothing in the film’s opening scenes suggests where this movie is headed other than a situation comedy about yet another dysfunctional Italian-American family. In some respects the family does function, in a manner of speaking, despite a chaotic (to put it mildly) household.
Joy (Lawrence), that single mother of three, is the unusual head of the Long Island household as her mom Carrie (Madsen) has retired from life to a spare downstairs bedroom to watch TV soaps; her father Rudy (De Niro), who runs an auto body shop, must share a basement bedroom with Joy’s ex, Tony (Ramirez), a would-be lounge singer, whom dad can’t stand; her sister Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm) puts a damper on everything; and grandma Mimi (Diane Ladd) watches everything from the sidelines.
Her grandmother, in fact, is the story’s narrator and she’s not above plot spoilers: She makes clear right from the start to expect a story with a happy ending and her granddaughter triumphant.
A brief flashback to Joy’s youth finds her inventing her own play toys and coming up with great ideas for other things. She also insists she doesn’t need any prince to carry her away. She can do that by herself.
And now as a single mom with limited options, she grouses about that fluorescent flea collar she invented to keep pets safe that no one in her family saw fit to patent. When it hit the market a while later, she vowed to get a patent on her next great idea.
That idea comes in what seems like a fictional lightbulb-going-off moment but then again I don’t know the true story. Kicked out of his last girlfriend’s place, her dad picks out a well-to-do widow, Trudi (Rossellini), from a dating service, takes her on a first date. The next thing you know the whole family is on her boat enjoying a day’s cruise.
This is one of those leaps in story development where one minute dad’s got a date and the next that date is not only inviting out his family but, when Joy gets her brainstorm, dad inveigles the widow to fund development of the Miracle Mop.
So are they a couple? Did he ever move out of that basement he must share with Tony? And, while we’re at it, why does Joy’s ex act like such a loser only to wind up later her best friend and advisor?
I’ll tell you why: because grandma tells you that’s what happens.
Now I did say Bradley Cooper was in this movie and indeed he is second billed, which is a bit of a come-on. He appears so late in the movie I heard the audience audibly gasp: Everyone forgot about him.
Cooper plays the head of Barry Diller’s QVC Network where Joy will go on-air to sell her mop to housewives just like herself instead of celebrities pitching products. But his is really a kind of extended cameo appearance.
Having a name does lend extra weight to this role, but what it really does is brighten the marquee with a star barely involved in the story’s development.
Throughout the movie, Russell shows an infinity for oddball characters or situations that are never fully explained away. There is, for instance, a target range right next to Rudy’s body shop where mostly old geezers shoot beer bottles. There’s never any payoff to its existence other than giving Joy a place to fire a rifle in a moment of exasperation.
Why her ex-husband still occupies the basement of Joy’s house three years after their divorce is also never explained. People make rude comments about it but she, seemingly, tolerates him with a shrug that says mind your own business.
In some ways, you gotta like a film this sloppy, where things aren’t explained and not everything is spelled out. The business treachery and adversities Joy faces down are fully explained, however. This is where the film enters dramatic territory, of capitalistic chicanery that is the soft underbelly of the Wall Street chicanery on display in “The Big Short.”
As Joy jets around the country investigating possible deceit if not downright fraud, she gets arrested in one instance and bawled out by her father and family in another as her daughter collapses in tears. There are no laughs during these long sequences.
The sit-com opening and, of course, grandmother’s preamble alert you that better times are ahead. Would we bring you this far to give you a tale of evil triumphant? the filmmakers seem to ask.
No, they would not.
Lawrence adds another fine performance to a growing list that reaches back to “Winter’s Bone” back in 2010. Like Erin Brockovich her Joy is an indomitable force throughout the story, quietly confident in her ability to get ideas and see them through and determined that she will raise this family up by the bootstraps, single-handed if necessary.
De Niro is playing a variation on all his irascible old codgers he performs in comedies and non-gangster movies. But it’s hugely enjoyable and funny.
Madsen gets stuck in a one-note role of a woman whose disappointments with her ex-husband and life causes her to withdrawal into the world of soaps — that is, until a Haitian plumber (Jimmy Jean-Louis) comes to fix the damage she has done to the pipes.
The ex-husband is a curious role for an actor of Ramirez’s international success to take for his first Hollywood studio movie (unless you count “Zero Dark Thirty”). He struggles with the poorly developed and under-explained character but his muggings as an Italian lounge act — in gigs that scarcely would pay any rent — are intermittently funny.
Rossellini too is saddled with a character who never can come alive as someone who is real as opposed to a plot convenience but she nevertheless makes a warm, lively presence.
Ditto that for Cooper, charming his way through a handful of scenes that seem to imply more importance than they ultimately deliver.
So there is enough joy in “Joy” to keep the David O. Russell Experience rolling along. You do hope in the next outing a little more time is spent working on the screenplay so dots that need to connect are in fact visible.
Opens: December 25, 2015 (20th Century Fox)
Production companies: Fox 2000 presents an Annapurna Pictures, Davis Entertainment production
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Elisabeth Röhm, Édgar Ramirez, Virginia Madsen, Dascha Polanco, Donna Mills, Isabella Rossellini, Diane Ladd, Allie Marshall, Drena De Niro, Jimmy Jean-Louis
Director/screenwriter: David O. Russell
Story by: David O. Russell, Annie Mumolo
Producers: John Davis, Megan Ellison, David O. Russell, Jonathan Gordon, Ken Mok
Executive producers: Matthew Budman, John Fox, Joy Mangano, Mary McLaglen, Annie Mumolo, George Parra, Ethan Smith
Director of photography: Linus Sandgren
Production designer: Judy Becker
Music: West Dylan Thordson, David Campbell
Costume designer: Michael Wilkinson
Editors: Alan Baumgarten, Jay Cassidy, Tom Cross, Christopher Tellefsen
PG-13 rating, minutes