Saturday, August 15, 2015

Birthday Take: Jennifer Lawrence in "American Hustle" (2013)

Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Jennifer Lawrence
Born: August 15, 1990 (25 years old)
Nomination: Best Supporting Actress (Nominated) for American Hustle as Roslyn Rosenfeld

The Take

Among the many Best Picture nominees of the past few years, there have been few films as puzzling to me as director David O. Russell's American Hustle. That isn't to say it is the worst or the best movie. What I am generally saying is that it is a film that I have watched an inordinate amount of times without the blissful satisfaction. It is entertaining, sure, but I come away being able to admire it as a flawed film with a lot that goes right and wrong. For what it's worth, it's a solid movie to watch, even if I unfortunately forget large swaths of it within a week of seeing it. I have no idea if that's what inevitably has propelled it to one of my most watched Best Picture nominees of 2013, but compared to everything else, I keep coming back to this film.

Of course, there's one thing that I never fully have understood: Jennifer Lawrence. Say what you will about the sketchiness of every other actor in this, but I have always taken issue with Lawrence's performance here. That isn't to say that I dislike her. Even if I was very harsh on Silver Linings Playbook, she has been proven to be capable of talent. She is a lovable force in press interviews and has spawned a pretty solid reputation thanks to The Hunger Games movies. However, there was something that felt desperate about this particular role that has never worked for me. It almost seemed entirely like Russell saw what happened when Lawrence won an Oscar the year prior and decided to focus entirely on her as the comedic relief, especially since she often served as an inconsequential side character to most of the movie's actual 'hustle.'

It may sound harsh, and I am sure there are those who disagree. However, she is more often than not my least favorite part of the movie. She plays Rosalyn, Christian Bale's wife and someone with a thick accent and is equated to as a "dumb blonde" role. Her big moment comes when she realizes a microwave oven is a bad idea and it almost burns down the house. It is a moment that is more reactionary than of her doing anything. Later on, in what scene bothers me the most, she dances to Paul McCartney's "Live and Let Die." I could write a whole dissection of why this scene is irritating, but I'll just state the simple. It was incongruous to everything else. It added no substance to the dramatic sidelines it was alongside. It's just Lawrence lip synching to a song while doing housework. It may be comical, but what's its inevitable point? 

I wish that I could say that watching it over and over brings clarification to it. However, I always feel my eyes roll as the moment comes. I feel it epitomizes why she shouldn't have been nominated, let alone how her previous win put unnecessary pressure on her to be a more important role. I do feel that what makes American Hustle a little off is that it does have a scene of rushed urgency and that Lawrence needed to bank on her growing star. It felt like an afterthought as well, where she went from an occasional punchline to a central attraction. It could just be that I dislike the role a lot, but I can't help but feel that she did a good job that was exploited to a nauseating degree. It makes me concerned a little for the upcoming Russell/Lawrence film Joy, but that looks to be more of a deliberate drama.

So let me clarify: I like American Hustle in theory. I watch it and get a kick out of it each time, even if it's just fine. I cannot say that it is anyone's best film, especially Lawrence. However, I think it remains an anomaly of sorts for a Best Picture nominee. With 10 nominations and 0 wins, it is part of a rare loser club also occupied by The Color Purple. Is it deserved? Maybe. However, I think what is most attractive about this movie is that it remains so good where it wants, but also feels self-aware of who the audience will care about. I think it partially sabotages story and humor. My only complaint is that it was a film that felt the pressure to be the next Silver Linings Playbook, and was better but not fully able to escape that notion. Lawrence is probably the biggest victim of that. She is fine and I wish her luck in the career ahead, but this is a role that will likely leave more audiences confused as time goes on.

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