Writer-director David O. Russell has a remarkable string of successes in the past five years, winning three Best Director and two Screenplay Oscar nominations for his most recent trio of films The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. All earned Oscar Best Picture nominations as well. His latest, Joy, is a slight departure, as it is the first time he has presented a woman at the center of one of his movies. It makes this film — the third collaboration between star Jennifer Lawrence and the director — not only a welcome respite from all the blood and guts male-oriented movies headed our way on Christmas Day but also an enormously effective story of female empowerment, family and success against all odds. In a time when it is most needed, the aptly titled Joy makes you feel good about life and its possibilities.

pete hammond review badgeAs I say in my video review (click the link above to watch), this is perhaps the first time we have seen such a full-bodied, strongly grounded and determined performance from Lawrence, and she runs with it. She is simply sensational, even eclipsing her Oscar-winning turn in Silver Linings Playbook. It is the kind of dream role women don’t often get these days particularly from major studio movies, which tend to be more male-oriented, and it should put her right back in the center of another Oscar run.

The movie centers on a woman with a dream, and it actually spans four decades in the life of Joy Mangano. This is inspired and based on her true story and real events, though Russell would be first to admit it is not a straight biopic even though the most incredible parts of it are things he didn’t have to make up. What the director — who wrote the script from a story by him and Annie Mumolo — does is get right to the essence and truth even if at times liberties are taken for dramatic purposes.

The bulk of the film is set in the early ’90s as nascent inventor Mangano, frustrated with using ordinary mops of the time in her own life, comes up with a plastic one made up of 300 feet of cotton that can be wrung out without getting your hands wet. Although rejected by just about everyone she takes it to, Mangano discovers the opportunity to sell it on TV just at the time home shopping network QVC is taking off. She takes it to Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), who runs the new network, and he gives her a shot. After a bad run she convinces him to let her sell it herself and her life begins to transform.

As in any Russell movie, this is just a part of what it is really all about, as this is a story that revolves around family — many of them eccentric in their own ways — and how this very forgiving person navigates the people in her life and her own dreams. Also like other Russell films it is a true actors showcase, and he writes women just as well as he writes men. But this is in part a crackerjack story about female empowerment and never giving up, so the emphasis is on that with a sensational group of actresses playing an eclectic group of women including Elisabeth Rohm as Joy’s envious sister Peggy, who lives in her shadow; Virginia Madsen as her soap opera-addicted mother Terry (there are great soap opera star cameos in the film from the likes of Susan Lucci and Donna Mills); and the wonderful Diane Ladd as her supportive grandmother Mimi. Dascha Polanco of Orange Is The New Black effectively plays Joy’s best friend, Jackie. And I was really taken with Isabella Rossellini as Trudi, girlfriend to Joy’s father (Robert De Niro), who becomes the key financial backer for Joy’s business venture. Rossellini is not seen often enough these days on the big screen and she steals every scene she’s in.

There is a fine group of male actors as well including Edgar Ramirez who plays Tony, Joy’s ex-husband but now friend and business associate who lives in the basement with her not-so-responsible but well-meaning father Rudy (another fine turn from Silver Linings co-star De Niro). The whole idea of a divorced couple who still have a decent relationship and love for each other — even if its not romantic love — is rarely explored in movies, and Lawrence and Ramirez have great chemistry. Cooper is again terrific as the QVC head who gives her a shot and then finds himself just trying to keep up with her. In the QVC section, some of the best scenes in the film, there is a fun cameo from Melissa Rivers playing her own QVC celebrity seller mother Joan Rivers. It is inspired casting indeed, as is Dreena De Niro as the QVC host.

If you are looking for a great human story this season look no further than Joy, one of the year’s most enriching and entertaining films, a throwback in many ways to kind of movies studios turned out in the ’40s and ’50s when big female stars really held court. This is a must-see if you care at all about movies that feature real people you can root for.

Producers are John Davis, Jonathan Gordon, Ken Mok, Megan Ellison and Russell for the film, which is being released Christmas Day by 20th Century Fox. Do you plan to see Joy? Let us know what you think.