David O. Russell’s latest, Joy, tells the story of Joy Mangano, an American inventor best known for her self-wringing Miracle Mop. Well, sort of. Joy is partly about how Joy Mangano became Joy Mangano, but it’s also about how family just likes to watch you fail, even if that means they have to lend failure a hand.

Russell likes a squabbling family—Flirting With DisasterThe FighterSilver Linings Playbook—and the more squabbling, the better. But with Joy, Russell takes his usual squabbling to an unbearably shrill level, sucking all the humor out of the room in the process.

That room is one big run down—and running down—house owned by Joy (Jennifer Lawrence), who lives with her soap-opera addicted mother (Virginia Madsen), her deadbeat crooner ex-husband (Édgar Ramírez), her ungrateful father (Robert De Niro), her children, and Grandma (Diane Ladd), who narrates Joy’s story from beyond the grave. With all of these people under one roof, there is bound to be a fight or two, but there is no hilarity in their madness, only anger. Considering that the genre Russell seems to be most invoking here are the screwball comedies of Hollywood’s golden age, the jokes are noticeably absent.

Family aside, Joy’s story is typical. An incident with a broken glass leads her to an epiphany. Hard work and discovery lead her to the invention of the Miracle Mop, and fortune puts her in the room with Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), a buyer for K-Mart and the QVC shopping channel. No surprise here, Joy charms Walker and he gives her a go.

These scenes at QVC are where Joy finally finds life. Here, Walker explains how he and the talent onstage manipulate (i.e., direct) the viewers at home to pick up a phone and buy a piece of jewelry, a chair, a mop, anything. Walker knows that they aren’t selling products; they’re selling a fantasy. Look at the hands, Joy. Look at the hands.

It is unfortunate that the best scenes in Joy belong to Walker and not Joy. Instead, she has the thankless job of playing referee to her bickering family while she overcomes setback after setback. Lawrence does the best with what she is given, and her penultimate scene shows a good deal of strength and power, but Russell’s messy movie ultimately lets her down.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Joy (2015)
Written and Directed by: David O. Russell
Story by: David O. Russell, Annie Mumolo
Produced by: John Davis, Megan Ellison, Jonathan Gordon, Ken Mok, David O. Russell
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, Édgar Ramírez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini
20th Century Fox, Rated PG-13, Running time 124 minutes, Opens December 25, 2015