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Watching the last five minutes of Joy, I finally realized this drama was supposed to be a biopic about some woman who made a gazillion dollars selling stuff on The Shopping Channel. And here I was thinking it was a movie about a mop.

And while I could think of instances in which a mop might make quite a good protagonist – perhaps in an animated children's feature or in an in-depth doc about the tortures of the patent process – this limp and erratic family drama was certainly not one of them.

Every time working-class heroine Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence) defies another doubter or makes another sale, you find yourself saying, "Umm, yeah, but that's just a mop." I have no idea what David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle) thinks he is doing here, but a director has really screwed up when an attentive viewer can't tell a movie's subject from its object.

Joy is being billed as a movie about a family business dynasty, but Russell begins by mocking that family. The hard-working Joy supports a big and unhappy crowd whose most dysfunctional member is her mother, Terry (Virginia Madsen), a damaged divorcee who never leaves the bedroom where she watches her soaps. (Sometimes the movie includes melodramatic scenes from the soaps as a joke; this is a bad idea because, by comparison, Joy is not much better.)

Anyway, there in the comedy bedroom Madsen is doing quite an amusing job playing the wacky TV addict. (The half star is for her.) As her obnoxious ex-husband Rudy, that late-blooming comic Robert De Niro seems all set to join her and, in the role of his wealthy girlfriend, Isabella Rossellini looks like she, too, would happily move in and make funny. But then Russell puts on the brakes and swerves across the road in an attempt to make his exit for an inspiring drama about the American dream.

If his direction is erratic, the script he wrote with Annie Mumolo (Bridesmaids) has gaps you could drive a truck through and dialogue filled with painfully obvious exposition of plot, motive and theme. Every time anyone says anything important they repeat it, just in case you missed the point. The whole thing is narrated by Joy's grandmother except – stop reading now if you think you might actually pay money to see this trainwreck – she dies halfway through, so I guess she's narrating from beyond the grave.

Meanwhile, Lawrence soldiers away, making speeches about the land of opportunity and the importance of being able to toss a mop head straight in the wash, as though she were Norma Rae and this was a cure for cancer.

So, eventually, Joy gets her mop on TV and begins a belated but meteoric rise to business stardom. (Cue an appearance from Bradley Cooper as the slick exec who gives her a break; he seems uncertain as to whether he's a bad guy or a good guy.)

When Joy runs into a bankrupting roadblock, Rudy says his mistake was to ever let her think she was more than a bored housewife peddling her wares to other bored housewives. It's a pretty insulting thing to say to an adult daughter who seems to be one of few family members to hold down a job.

Maybe the geniuses who produced this thing (a long list that includes Mangano herself) thought they could sell her story to the same "bored housewives" who buy her stuff. Perhaps people who make gazillions selling housewares on The Shopping Channel deserve to be honoured; if they do, Joy is not a fitting tribute to Mangano – nor to the mop.