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Joy’ makes for a clever but uneven biopic

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Jennifer Lawrence in Joy.

Three and a half stars

Joy Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Edgar Ramirez. Directed by David O. Russell. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday.

Joy, David O. Russell’s biopic about inventor Joy Mangano, begins not with her childhood or her first invention or a similarly recognizable starting point for a biography, but with a surreal scene out of a sort of fun-house version of a soap opera, starring soap-opera queen Susan Lucci herself. It immediately announces the movie as an off-kilter take on true events, much like Russell’s American Hustle, even if it then gets right to depicting Mangano’s childhood and her first invention.

The tension between the fanciful and the mundane never quite resolves over the course of the movie, and Joy is less successful when it focuses on laying out the facts of Mangano’s career. Jennifer Lawrence plays Mangano with her typical grit, which the divorced mother of two must summon in order to deal with her needy, undermining family (led by Robert De Niro as Mangano’s casually sexist father). Like American Hustle, Joy has a jazzy energy as it barrels through some unlikely events, including Mangano’s rise to fame as an early star of QVC. The movie is less assured when dealing with how her career progresses from there, and the final act is an awkward, rushed summary of Mangano’s later success. Reality only gets in the way of Russell’s dynamic filmmaking.

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