'Joy' (PG-13)

On the surface, Joy is a classic underdog tale, based on the true story of a divorced mother of two who had a smart, useful idea and parlayed it into transcendent business success. But what the film truly reveals is something else entirely: how Jennifer Lawrence can elevate any material, any time, even middle-of-the-pack fare like this.

Fresh off her final installment of Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games series, Lawrence has worked with director/screenwriter David O. Russell before (in the hilarious American Hustle and the inexplicably overpraised Silver Linings Playbook). This time, Lawrence gets a less cartoony role, which is a plus since she’s got to carry this chaotic script and wrench some well-earned empathy out of the audience amid the sort of exhausting cinematic pandemonium that Russell favors.

We view Joy through the loving eyes (and voiceover) of her grandmother (Diane Ladd), who marvels over her granddaughter’s talent and gumption. As the film opens, though, Joy (Lawrence) has been beaten down by an unrewarding job, debt, two kids, a dead marriage and a quirky, deeply annoying family. Her ex-husband (Edgar Martinez) lives in the basement. Her mother (Virginia Madsen) watches bad soaps all day and won’t leave her bed. Her father (Robert De Niro, doing his usual Robert De Niro schtick) has been booted out by his girlfriend and has to move back into the family’s house. Eventually he starts dating a wealthy widow (Isabella Rossellini), whose money is welcome but only adds to the family discord.

Amid this tiresome cast of characters — you can almost feel Russell beaming at the idiosyncratic cacophony they create — Joy, always an innovator, hits on an idea for a dream mop (naturally when she’s wiping up someone else’s clumsy mistake).

The film finds its legs once the business side of the story takes off, as Joy tries to market and patent her invention and is rebuffed, led astray and frustrated at every turn. She finally gets a chance to show off her product on the new and successful QVC, thanks to Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper, another Russell alum), who knows a good product when he sees one. Their chemistry — purely of the amiable-but-practical business sort — comes as a gentle relief after all the histrionics of her family.

There are other nice touches in the film: Melissa Rivers playing her mother Joan and Susan Lucci of All My Children showing up as a character on the dreadful serial to which Joy’s mom is addicted. But Russell draws his characters as broadly as those soap opera stick figures he’s so eager to mock, and though Joy at least tries to break the standard biopic formula, it’s only partially successful at reconstructing an interesting life.

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, Edgar Ramirez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Dascha Polanco.

Director: David O. Russell.

Screenwriters: David O. Russell, Annie Mumalo.

A 20th Century Fox release. Running time: 124 minutes. Brief strong language. Opens Dec. 25 at area theaters.

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