There was a time when David O. Russell couldn't catch a break: He spent years working on a project called Nailed, which never received a theatrical release, and he developed a reputation as a cruel taskmaster when a clip of a shouting match with Lily Tomlin went viral. (Nailed made its way to video as Accidental Love.) Enter Mark Wahlberg, who appeared in Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees. The actor had been sitting on a script about a Boston boxer, and he tapped Russell to direct. The Fighter was the result, and the filmmaker was back in business, but instead of more movies with Wahlberg, he made two with Jennifer Lawrence, who won the Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook, so it's inevitable that he would build a film around her.
Though Bridesmaids cowriter Annie Mumolo drew from a true story, Joy plays more like Russell's family farce Flirting with Disaster. It's an antic comedy with Lawrence as its calm center. She's always watchable, but she's too young for the part of a Long Island single mother who climbs the ladder to success by way of the Miracle Mop, and it prevents her triumph at the end from having the impact that it should. Diane Ladd, who narrates in her honeyed drawl, elevates the scenario as Joy's encouraging grandmother, but as female empowerment pictures go, Joy is a bit of a dud.