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Let Jennifer Lawrence Live

America’s clumsiest sweetheart is wobbling, but ‘Passengers’ is not her fault

(Columbia Pictures)
(Columbia Pictures)

So let’s just deal, briskly and sensitively, with the “Jennifer Lawrence scratches her butt on sacred Hawaiian rocks” thing. Yeah. It’s unsightly, discomfiting, regrettable. Mistakes were made. Here we find Lawrence and Chris Pratt — stars of Passengers, a medium-bad and wildly disingenuous space romance, which we will come back to, at some length and with less sensitivity — on The Graham Norton Show. Where the guests drink alcohol, as you might recall. And thus J-Law tipsily launches into another one of those cute, blunt, self-deprecating, whimsically uncouth talk-show stories that greatly aided her ascent to the America’s Sweetheart throne and may hasten her descent in turn.

A good thing to know here is that Pratt lived in Hawaii for quite some time, much of it while homeless and holed up in a Scooby-Doo van. He is thus plainly not enjoying his costar’s goofy tale of shooting yet another Hunger Games movie and allowing an itchy wetsuit to blind her to cultural insensitivity. Jennifer Lawrence, on Hawaii’s sacred rocks: “Oh my God, they were so good for butt-itchin’! I would just be like [indicates relief] OHHHHHH!” Then she accidentally dislodged one and sent it bounding down a mountain, where it almost squashed a sound guy. Good times. Here is her Facebook apology; “From Jen, to the internet,” it begins. Gritted teeth all around.

I sense some of you out there have soured on J-Law. Maybe you winced when she sassed a reporter at the Golden Globes for using his phone while asking her a question, referring to him as “bro.” Perhaps you disapprove of her Amy Schumer alliance. Probably you’ve tired of the whole whimsically uncouth talk-show routine, cry-laughing at somebody else’s poop story and telling a story about puking at an Oscars after-party and basically humblebragging up an intergalactic storm, with an infinite reserve of embarrassing stories that just happen to involve famous people doing opulent-type shit in exotic locations. This Questlove reaction shot sums it up. She is Gone Girl’s “Cool Girl” speech made sentient. It’s a tricky balance. She’s wobbling.

Or maybe it’s simply that she hasn’t made a great movie in forever. Since the double whammy of 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook and 2013’s American Hustle, it’s largely been X-Men movies (bah), Hunger Games movies (fine, but maybe they shouldn’t have made, like, 12 of them) and Joy (bah times 12). She’s coasting. Passengers intends to restore her to some semblance of glory. It most emphatically will not. But don’t blame her: This movie is victimizing her onscreen and off. Maybe — the sacred Hawaiian rocks thing aside — let’s consider possibly cutting her somewhat of a break.

The Passengers junket has been exhausting in its adorableness, its manure fueling every content farm o’er the land. (This “Playground Insults” battle is the finest of its many hours; Pratt wins handily with “Why did they call it Joy?” and “How does it feel, being in the stupidest Marvel movie?”) Romantic-comedy press tours are of course the most invasive, the two leads inevitably poked and prodded and dissected with forensic intensity. (The 50 Shades of Grey death march remains an unwitting master of the form.) But this goddamn movie, as skeptics long suspected and unwitting viewers can now confirm, is no kind of romantic comedy. This complicates the narrative for everyone, Lawrence especially. OK: You especially. You’re in for a profoundly unpleasant time, here. But it ain’t no picnic for her, neither.

Alright. Deep breaths. So as the trailer clearly suggests, we’re on a fancy spaceship bound for a distant planet on a voyage of 100-plus years. Everyone’s in hibernation pods. But Pratt’s and Lawrence’s pods both malfunction; they awake far too early, they realize their terrible plight, they band together, they sex the joint up. Computer-generated wonders and mild romantic action ensue. Pretty cool, right? Not cool, dude.

Spoilers coming. Right after this song. (Chosen at random.)

Yeah so it turns out only Chris Pratt’s pod malfunctions. For 40 minutes it’s just him wandering around, swinging from confusion to shock to despair to resignation to goofy hedonism to huge-beard slovenliness to suicidal despair. He does this for a year. And then he happens across Lawrence in her perfectly functioning hibernation pod, and falls in love with her sleeping visage, and wrestles briefly with the moral implications before manually opening her pod and waking her up.

This is a horror movie. It’s unambiguous. It’s a death sentence. Passengers, directed by Morten Tyldum, is not trying to convince you Pratt did a noble, defensible thing, not exactly. So Lawrence wakes up, mistakenly believing her pod malfunctioned also, and she quickly cycles through the same emotions, and falls for Pratt, and the PG-13 sex stuff happens. And then she finds out the truth and goes apeshit. Quite rightly! But this is Jennifer Lawrence we’re talking about, volcanic and unencumbered, who’s made her fortune blowing up majestically, turning the simple word “HEY!” into a firestorm of ecstatic destruction. She screams, she cries, she flees the room, she returns after a long, furious sojourn to beat the crap out of Pratt in his own bed. “It’s murder!” she screams, and she is, again, to be perfectly clear, 100 percent correct. Not a romance! Not a comedy!

Except it never stops trying to be those things. You can guess the arc from there, mostly. Tentative reconciliation once Bigger Problems present themselves (along with Laurence Fishburne, bizarrely). Noble sacrifice. Many tears and sweet oaths and further sacrifices and so forth. The movie tries valiantly to pivot back toward the light, and you can acknowledge the attempt while also rejecting it, because Jesus Christ. There’s a scene post-blowup where J-Law is jogging angrily, and Pratt is on the PA system apologizing profusely, an unavoidable godlike voice everywhere around her like an interstellar catcaller, and she’s screaming I don’t care! back at him, and at this point, if my mom had insisted I take her to this movie because she thought it was a sweet little romantic comedy, I would kick my mom out of the theater myself, for her own protection.

This is J-Law’s cross to bear. She is ogled throughout, dewy and radiant even at the height of her anguish, made to cycle in seconds from sleepwear to swimwear. What made Passengers so attractive in theory was the sense that this is just the sort of midlist, mid-ambitious, overbuttered-popcorn flick that Hollywood doesn’t much make anymore, not trying to win any awards (hopefully, sheesh) but not trying to insult you either. Beautiful People in Space. Smart, sexy frivolity. Don’t overthink it. But this movie way overthinks it, and the insults and injuries are plentiful for everyone. But her especially. Because it’s always “her especially.”

The America’s Sweetheart laws have changed, the battleground shifting in a way that almost entirely devalues late-night talk shows, which will forever be Lawrence’s domain. (Jimmy Fallon’s various reviled child’s-birthday-party antics — the silly games, the contrived stunts, the canned humiliations — can be largely understood as a crude means of Making Everyone Act More Like Jennifer Lawrence.) Ideally you’re a master of social media now, a more digital form of Cool Girl relatability. A Chrissy Teigen type. But, to address this briskly, Jennifer Lawrence has an awfully good reason for not trusting the internet.

(Columbia Pictures)
(Columbia Pictures)

Superstar actresses are theoretically in a different, protected class, hallowed and untouchable by design. Here’s what you’ll probably get if you Google “Emma Stone Twitter,” for example. But Stone’s in the Oscar conversation again this year, whereas Passengers has a treacherous uphill battle to avoid Razzie status, misguided and misleading and colossally queasy in, it must be said, a very distinct way. Lawrence did what she could with it, onscreen and in the content-farm promotional run-up. But the strain is palpable, the ambition plain, and that’s what really triggers the America’s Sweetheart backlash.

Ask Anne Hathaway. She whispered “It came true” when she won her Oscar; Lawrence literally fell up the stairs on the way to collect hers, self-deprecating even in triumph. And we loved her for it, until, increasingly, we didn’t, we don’t. There are reasonable impulses here, inseparable from the entirely unreasonable ones. Passengers sits, unfortunately and uncomfortably, at the center of it now, an abuse of her talents, a card trick where the trick is it shoves all the cards down your throat, but also hers. She’s not perfect, and her bullhorn I’m-not-perfect antics are wearing thin, sure. But she deserves better. From this movie, at least. For starters.