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A miscast Jennifer Lawrence is only part of the confusion in Joy.

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Oh, no: Does David O. Russell have his first dud on his hands in Joy? For the first time since he realized that Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper belong onscreen together—theirs is a chemistry that will be the stuff of Hollywood legend, I have no doubt—the result is something that never quite gels. Russell isn't wrong about Lawrence and Cooper; it's only when they are paired up here that the movie comes alive. But they're not paired up onscreen anywhere near enough to mold Joy into an entertaining whole.

It's only when Lawrence is zinging with Cooper that I was able to look past how woefully miscast she is as entrepreneur Joy Mangano, who created a mop that can be wrung hands-free, and who went on to become a home-shopping superstar. Written by Russell and Bridesmaids scribe Annie Mumolo, Joy is only loosely based on the real Mangano, which may have been intended as a way to dodge the fact that Lawrence is at least a decade too young to be playing a woman who was in her 30s when she embarked on her path to business success.

But the film sticks closely to the story of a divorced mom who travels a long, hard road before her triumph and vindication (because of course she was doubted by everyone along the way). It's tough enough early on in Joy to buy the 25-year-old Lawrence as the mother of two grade-schoolers; by the end of the film, with her children grown and Mangano the magnate of an empire, Lawrence comes across like a little kid playing business-lady dress-up. This isn't a matter of her talent, which is beyond doubt, but of a presence and a gravitas that cannot be faked, and comes only—if it ever comes at all—with actual age.

When Lawrence gets to dig into scenes that don't accidentally emphasize her relatively tender years, she is as extraordinarily engaging as she ever is. The sequences with Cooper, as a fictional HSN executive slightly beset with delusions of grandeur—he likens himself to a golden-age Hollywood studio mogul—don't work merely because of the palpable chemistry between the two of them. They work because Lawrence can turn on her everywoman appeal, as Joy refuses to become a standard HSN Barbie-doll TV presenter and insists on being herself as she demonstrates her product for (hopefully) buying audiences. And this version of herself, the hitherto thwarted inventor at last given her moment to shine, is far more plausible than the harried mom with a crazy family the rest of the movie insists on forcing her to be.

Even the miscasting of Lawrence, however, takes a backseat to the weirdly stilted, forced quirkiness of how Russell casts Joy's crazy family life. Her parents are divorced, but as the film opens, her father, Rudy (Robert De Niro), is moving in to roost in the basement, where her ex, Tony (Édgar Ramírez), is also living. The two men hate each other, but the animosity between Rudy and his ex, Joy's reclusive, dyspeptic mother Terry (Virginia Madsen)—who also lives in the house—is even worse. Russell pitches the cantankerous domestic environment as akin to a messy, lower-middle-class version of a glitzy fantasy soap opera; we know this is his intention because we are treated, by way of comparison, to excerpts from the (fake) ongoing saga of the soap that Terry is obsessed with, which features actual soap stars such as General Hospital and Guiding Light vet Laura Wright. But the cast is never all on the same page here, ranging from Lawrence's direct invisibly dramatic authenticity to Isabella Rossellini—as Rudy's new girlfriend and an early investor in Joy's company—verging on auditioning for a part in a comedic David Lynch fever dream.

Russell is too deliberate a filmmaker for this to be accidental, and this cast is too smart and too good for them not to be giving him exactly what he wants. I wish I could see what he was aiming for, and what he saw in his mind for Joy. I'm sure that would be a fantastic film.

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JOY

Jennifer Lawrence

Robert DeNiro

Bradley Cooper

Rated PG-13

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