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Let Jennifer Lawrence Be Jennifer Lawrence

The ‘Red Sparrow’ star’s power is in her presence, not her theatrics. So why do her films so often misuse her talents?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Red Sparrow, the new Jennifer Lawrence movie, is having an identity crisis—and frankly, after seeing it, so am I. Three-hundred and sixty-four days out of the year, I would consider myself to be a Lawrence fan, a hard-line defender of her staunch inability to either consistently emote or truly disappear into a role. “Lawrence is Lawrence,” I would say. “Persona is performance.” Haven’t you seen her on talk shows? We don’t watch her movies to see her disappear into the skin of other people, or for the plastered-on screenwriting fictions of personality and sweeping emotion. That would defeat the point: We watch to see her. A Jennifer Lawrence movie is your chance to hang out with Jennifer Lawrence, like she’s the drinking buddy of modern cinema. She—not the role, nor the performance, nor often enough even the film—is the main attraction.

Or so the story usually goes. But then, on the 365th day, Lawrence releases a new movie. And I again find myself having to drum up some explanation for not only buying into her appeal, but also the fact she’s got such a busy mainstream career. Watching one of her movies can feel like seeing a friend’s band play for the first time; you’re so relieved when they don’t totally embarrass themselves that you automatically grade them on a curve, entranced by goodwill. You’re a friend of the band; you don’t scrutinize. This is where Lawrence, who spends an inordinate amount of time working in brutally revealing closeup, repeatedly sets herself up for failure. She keeps giving us chances to scrutinize, but in roles that don’t play to her strengths. It’s working against her.

Feel free to take inventory. Silver Linings Playbook? I can see the appeal of the role—crazy, sexy, cool—but I can’t explain why the Academy and other awards bodies drooled over the performance itself, which is only at its best when Lawrence is tasked with outwardly doing the least (something of a trope in her career). What about The Hunger Games? Same deal. I can hear the casting executives in the room saying, “Why don’t we cast the soft stoic from Winter’s Bone, you know, with the face?” She so successfully carries that franchise that I cannot imagine it starring anyone else, but the performances are also notable for giving her weaknesses too much latitude to compete with her strengths. Her power is in her presence, not her theatrics, but that quartet of movies, in which the character Katniss Everdeen ascends from defiant game contestant to political symbol, keeps unhelpfully flipping the switch.

Last year brought the mega-theatrics of Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, which unexpectedly gave her what might be her very best role, in part because the movie takes advantage of the fact that seeing someone pushed so far out of her depth is disconcerting and uncomfortable. It works wonderfully for the movie—that’s the weird thrill of seeing her pull it off. It proves that depth isn’t the endgame for a great Lawrence performance. We don’t necessarily need to see her doing new things: Sometimes, we just need new ways of seeing her do the same thing. I’ve been accused by friends of being the Simone Biles of mental gymnastics just for trying to make that case in her defense. People just aren’t having it.

We don’t seem to want to reward Lawrence for putting in a lot of effort, but that might be a compliment. We value all-consuming actorly types like Daniel Day-Lewis, but with Lawrence, we started to value an actor who works hard but whose movies don’t get marketed as testaments to that fact. It’s still refreshing. Lawrence has made a profession of playing the amateur, rather than the actorly try-hard, and it’s to her credit. She is more than worth her weight in Method actors; she is the last Hollywood star I’d expect to cite the number of hours she spent training with kung fu masters, the number of donuts she denied herself to lose weight for a role, or the amount of time she spent in the makeup chair enduring artistically-sculpted flab and hygienically suspicious skin sores to win an Academy Award. That’s not her bag, and for that, I am genuinely grateful. Nor is she a Meryl in the making, a classic Hollywood persona burdened by the standard-bearing responsibilities of pedigree and prestige. We won’t be tallying up Lawrence’s versatility with accents any time soon, nor studying her repertoire of gestures, nor lapping up her righteous stage turns as Lady Macbeth or Mother Courage nor asking her, in earnest, about her “process.” Unlike the generation of stars before her, and even unlike stars of her own generation, Lawrence hasn’t had to prove her virtuosity. Eddie Redmayne had to contort himself into the body of Stephen Hawking to win an Oscar. Jennifer Lawrence won by being Jennifer Lawrence.

What’s valuable about Lawrence is that she confounds so many of our arbitrary measurements of good acting, yet usually pulls off something interesting anyway. Like so much of her work, Red Sparrow, directed by Francis Lawrence (no relation) after the 2013 spy novel by Jason Matthews, isn’t a fulfillment of her talent, but it’s a movie that again clarifies your sense of her potential. Lawrence plays a Bolshoi prima ballerina named Dominika Egorova whose career ends in a swift, brutal snap when a male dance partner leaps across the stage and lands squarely on her leg. It’s a moment so violent it’ll make you squirm and cringe, but perhaps not as much as the rickety backstory: the sick mother with expensive medical bills, the apartment paid for by the Bolshoi, and all of it now at risk given that she’ll never dance again. So, of course, she gets desperate. And when her handsome but lecherous uncle Vanya Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts), who’s the deputy director of the Russian Intelligence service, offers to take care of her mother in exchange for doing him a favor, she has little choice.

You could sum the movie up in Lawrence’s shaky Russian accent: tepid, confused, noncommittal, but kind of entertaining. The premise, at least, is onto something. At her uncle’s insistence, Dominika is shipped off to the notorious Sparrow School, where she learns that, among other things, her body now literally belongs to the state. Sparrow School is where attractive young spies-to-be, including men, are trained in the art of seduction. On Russia’s behalf, they give their bodies over to the desires of their marks, no matter their gross amorality. Strategically, the nastier, the better.

If you think that has the makings of a slick, smart, erotic thriller, you’d be right—about the script, at least. “Here we deal in psychological manipulation,” instructs the school matron, played by Charlotte Rampling, who deploys that mischievous squint and heavy brow of hers to conjure up fear and sexual deviance in her students. “If you cannot be of service to the state,” she says, “I am going to put a bullet in your head.” It’s a finely declarative statement of what’s at stake, but like so much here, that sense of menace never really bears out in an exciting way. The students binge-watch BDSM porn and practice lamely seducing easy marks—by, say, performing fellatio on bad guys in front of the entire class—as the matron stalks the classroom, spinning off menacing lines like, “You must inure yourself to what you find unpleasant.” Meaning what, Charlotte? This movie?

A third of the way through, Red Sparrow shifts to become a thriller in which our heroine falls in with an American CIA agent, played by Joel Edgerton, in order to free herself of both her uncle and her debts to the state. It’s a movie rife with violence—to skin-peeling, bone-crunching, point-blank bullet levels—paired with smatterings of spy-novel sex. It should be a riot—instead, thanks to visionless direction and a substance-less style, it verges on being an outright snooze. This is the fourth time Jennifer Lawrence has worked with Francis Lawrence, who directed the last three legs of the Hunger Games franchise and seems totally intent on transforming this ribald, charismatic actress into a complete bore.

You can see why Lawrence was cast. Her strength, for the most part, is in playing women who keep their psychological nuances to themselves, beneath the surface, or who at the very least convince themselves they’ve done so, which explains why every director seems to insist on drawing our attention to her face. It’s obviously in part because she’s attractive; it’s mostly because they know Lawrence’s talent is her face. That’s where she does her best, most confounding business.

A sphinx is the best possible heroine Red Sparrow could have conjured, which should have been great for Lawrence, who’s most interesting when she’s not trying to be, when she’s a blank slate who makes us wonder what’s going on beneath those layers of imperceptible reaction. You can imagine someone thinking a femme fatale would suit her, and they’re not wrong, but the movie as is doesn’t know how to make that case. What’s too bad is that it readily could have. Red Sparrow has genre thrills a director like Paul Verhoeven could have made a five-course meal, transforming an over-the-top premise into a feast of leering fascination and a study of a character whose motivations sometimes seem obscure, but whose sense of inner torment is automatically made interesting by virtue of being so easy to suppress.

Maybe that movie is out of the actress’s league, and maybe not. Rewatching Winter’s Bone recently, I was struck by how good Lawrence is when nobody’s asking her to be a movie star. Her promise in that movie and the soulful minimalism she brought to Debra Granik’s thoughtful Ozark Western made her the hottest ticket in town. I miss the pre-movie star days of Lawrence’s career for this reason, the time before directors had apparently all made up their minds to miscast her for the rest of her career. I’m not even sure if the Verhoeven Red Sparrow would work with Lawrence as the star, but the Francis Lawrence version made me curious about the possibility of someone, somewhere, coaxing new angles out of Lawrence’s familiar repertoire. Mother! was the first, if fraught, step into the weird. Red Sparrow would have been a worthy next step.

Instead, we have Francis Lawrence’s version, which leaves Jennifer to her own devices by more or less offering a straightforward spy story, rather than milking it for its obvious pleasures. Even the sex is a snooze—in an erotic thriller! That’s how you know this guy is bogus. Lawrence the actress, however, is not. She’s just not Sharon Stone. And so the scene of the super-sex spy slowly seducing her hunky American mark—which should be, like, the hottest thing ever—just sort of sits there, inert. The only time the movie seems alive during its erotic scenes is when there’s sexual violence, which is worth unpacking, preferably by someone who bills by the hour.

In the meantime, what we’ve got is a movie that you can’t help but compare to thrillers like Basic Instinct—to Red Sparrow’s detriment. The movie makes sport of falling short of its own potential. Then again, so does its star, who has again given us reason to believe that she has the talent and, in some cases, even the range, but who has yet to land more than a handful of roles that really bear this out. Lawrence is good in Red Sparrow: She carries the movie with poise and faint traces of her candid sense of humor. But all it takes is a late cameo from Mary-Louise Parker, who plays a drunken politician, to remind you of all the liveliness and originality the movie otherwise lacks. Lawrence possesses those qualities in spades—just peep a promotional video she did with Vanity Fair this week in which she jokes her way through a polygraph test with more flavor and wit than she’s gotten to display, with honesty anyway, in most of her movies. What gives? A better version of Red Sparrow might at least have let her revel in the darker shades of that personality. Instead, we’re left with more of the tepid same, and that’s a shame.