[I am proud to announce that Matthew Eng, who we've heard from twice as a guest columnist, is now an official member of Team Experience. Here he is on a soon-to-be three-time Oscar nominee! -Editor]
By now, Jennifer Lawrence is well on her way to scoring another Oscar nomination for her supporting performance as the unstable, self-dramatizing Reel Housewife of Long Island Rosalyn Rosenfeld in David O. Russell's American Hustle. Despite initially wary expectations regarding role size, divisive reactions towards both film and performance, and a slowly-surging sense of fatigue regarding America's Sarcastic Sweetheart, Lawrence has already been embraced by two major critics groups (NYFCC and NSFC), was the only actor in her prized ensemble to gain individual recognition from SAG, and, depending on how AMPAS feels about Oprah, June Squibb, and Lupita Nyong'o, might very well be on her way to copping yet another golden boy.
I like Lawrence a great deal, have absolutely no qualms about the Silver Linings victory, and think she's often quite good in Hustle. I laughed heartily watching her blame game her way out of that “science oven” debacle and friskily shove her “sweet and sour” nails in Jeremy Renner’s face. She's lovely in that warm, teary-eyed bayside confessional during her lunch date with Jack Huston. And I contemplated dropping out of college and devoting the rest of my life (or, you know, at least a semester or two) to watching her stick it to Amy Adams in that ferocious bathroom kiss-off/actress throwdown.
And yet, if there is any one viewer who can honestly say that they believed - even for a second - that Jennifer Lawrence was ever really that woman, unhappily married for years to that man, counting the days in that house, and nearly burning down that kitchen, can he/she please stand up? [more... ]
In the weeks since I first saw Hustle, I have found it increasingly difficult to resolve what is inherently fun and entertaining about the performance with what is so blatantly inadequate about Lawrence's stunt casting, not to mention the type of age-inappropriate casting it can only further enable.
American Hustle represents an interesting and fundamentally self-aware step forward in Lawrence's career. Rosalyn, although clearly not the female lead of Hustle, is a role that's all but built for scene-stealing and maximum attention, and Russell calls upon Lawrence to fully utilize the type of silly, self-deprecating, and utterly un-self-serious sense of humor that by now we are all well-acquainted with from awards shows, interviews, and red carpets, but which has heretofore gone missing in her brief but notable filmography, save for the spurts of it we saw in Silver Linings. But even in the film her most memorable, Oscar-clinching scenes were more fiery than funny. Hustle is perhaps the first movie, post-Oscar, that knows and willingly presents not only Jennifer the Bona Fide Silver Screen Star, but also Jennifer the Jokester. The Comedienne. The Ham. In essence, Jennifer As We Know Her, except in period garb; nothing less, and yet nothing much more.
This doesn't entirely feel like Lawrence's fault. It never looks like she's coasting, nor does it look like she's actively trying to hijack the movie (a la, say, the Notorious Ruby Thewes), as some detractors have suggested. Save for one utterly misguided bit of improvisatory dancing to "Live and Let Die" (ridiculous in conception more than performance) and the Slip'n Slide she does with that Long Island accent, Lawrence doesn't seem to be doing anything that Russell isn't simply requesting of her. When he asks for sex kitten, she whips off her caftan and writhes around on that marriage bed. When he asks for life of the party, she slaps the table, shakes the bouffant, and takes a tumble out of the booth, cackling till she hits the ground. When he asks for a loopy, catchphrase-spouting comic side gal, she cracks "Thank god for me" till the cows come home. She's Russell's obliging muse, and aside from feeding into the unshakably sexist treatment of Rosalyn-as-scapegoat, nothing in Lawrence's performance choices seems wrong, per se, or even remotely disastrous. I just didn't believe any of it.
Is it that the film (as scripted) never settles the age issue, specifically whether or not Lawrence is supposed to be reenacting the Diary of an Older, Madder Housewife, in which case the believability factor instantly becomes an issue, or if she's actually a former, Vickie LaMotta-like child bride to Bale's hulking, hairpieced husband, in which case ewww? It's easy to laugh at Jennifer but hard to take her seriously as Rosalyn, especially when Russell often places her, in shot after shot, right next to Elisabeth Röhm, who, from dress to highlights, offers a fabulous portrait of 70s middle-aged housewife verisimilitude. How is any twenty-three-year-old supposed to compare, and so, for the first time, Lawrence, who has always exuded adult, is suddenly showing her age, despite remaining the only actress of her generation who probably never has to play a high school heroine or a drifting postgrad if she doesn't want to? In a film that occasionally if not deliciously feels like an opportunity for David O. Russell's Merry Band of Thespians to play dress-up, Lawrence all too often comes across as the ingenue attempting to stretch into older roles, who slipped into a form-fitting evening dress, slapped on a wig, put her hands on her hips, and called herself a Grown-Up. She sure looks gorgeous and the costumes, cosmetics, and wigs themselves are all flawless, except that, on Jennifer, they look like costumes, cosmetics, and wigs. Lawrence's Rosalyn frequently feels less like an embodied characterization than an elaborate dress rehearsal for one.
What's more, the re-casting opportunities seem infinite, and I continue to fantasize about what an older, less ubiquitous actress might have done with this schematically underwritten role that nonetheless presents a lot of fine opportunities for some showy actressing from the edges. How about Marisa Tomei, an eminently gifted, highly respected, and yet bizarrely underused actress, who hasn't gotten to flex her Oscar-winning comic chops so prominently since, arguably, Mona Lisa Vito? What about Maria Bello, who is no one's first idea of a funny lady, but whose knack for both effortless sensuality and potent, forceful toughness might've made her an interesting match for the sex-wielding, long-suffering Rosalyn? Or what about (dare I suggest it?) Cameron Diaz, one of our most continually-squandered comediennes, who remains in dire need of a role that can both challenge her lazy typecasting and utilize her perky, involving, and reliably-game onscreen persona? Or, if you want to go the typecasting route, The Sopranos' Drea de Matteo would both look plausible and be age-appropriate. (My god, can you imagine that bathroom encounter?)
It's also a bit unfortunate that Lawrence's fine but unfulfilled shtick is being ballyhooed in the same year that gave us two benchmarks of broadly comedic yet deliciously detailed supporting actressing, in the forms of Scarlett Johansson's gum-snapping, shots-calling Jersey Girl in Don Jon and Emma Watson's crafty, Juicy Coutured Calabasas Nightmare in The Bling Ring. I must also admit that I'm more than a little frustrated with how much focus Lawrence pulls, both in the current awards conversation and in Hustle itself, from Amy Adams, whose Sydney Prosser is just as vivacious a presence as Rosalyn but whose character is ultimately a much more evocative and astutely-personified one. Lawrence gives the film humor, at times relentlessly and needlessly so; Adams gives it humanity.
Indeed, for all the hilarity that Lawrence elicits by merely bugging her eyes out while puffing away on a cigarette or popping up in a neck brace, there's a troubling lack of interiority to the performance on the whole. Lawrence problematically omits major, potentially illuminating traits about Rosalyn, including the debilitating social anxiety we hear so much about yet which is totally eclipsed by her brash exterior, or her relationship with her son, who never actually feels like her son, much less someone she lives in the same house with, or, you know, gave birth to. Say what you will about screen time and supporting characters, but in the same movie Bradley Cooper manages to find poignancy and concealed depths in what could've easily remained a surface-bound comic creation. There is always the promise of concealed depths within Rosalyn's character, but seldom the unearthing.
Lawrence's screen persona is too vital to ever be anything less than engaging, even when it's irreparably miscast or overworked. Her Rosalyn is a mixed blessing of a performance, one that we can admire Lawrence for attempting in the first place and even enjoy for its most basic elements, if not one that necessarily warrants the current over-abundance of praise and prizes it has received thus far. Lawrence-as-Rosalyn never feels like anything more than a fun but thinnish acting exercise, a giddy but gimmicky comic spectacle where a real, full-bodied person could have been.
Like The Film Experience on Facebook!
never miss a great post like this one