Jennifer Lawrence affirms her star power in the films of David O. Russell

Jennifer Lawrence is one of the biggest movie stars in America. If that wasn’t clear before Christmas 2015, she managed to open Joy, a drama about mop patents, to $17 million despite mixed reviews and competition from the biggest movie ever. It’s the kind of feat that used to be accomplished by stars like Will Smith (whose own commercially iffy film opened the same weekend as Joy, to considerably lower numbers), and Lawrence may be the only actor under 30 capable of getting there.

More than ever, this kind of movie-star status seems to require some degree of self-branding. The work Lawrence has done to get to this point has been reliably good—but also regulated into a more clockwork consistency than a lot of stars. Beyond a few negligible indies and a horror movie, her basic game plan since her breakout in 2010’s Winter’s Bone has been simple (and, in part, contractually obligated): rotating X-Men movies, Hunger Games movies, and movies by filmmaker David O. Russell. The Russell films have filled the serious-movie slot in her schedule so regularly that they’ve almost become their own de facto franchise.

Joy is her latest collaboration with Russell, and though it did garner its star an Oscar nomination, it hasn’t matched the awards attention received by their two previous collaborations, 2013’s American Hustle and 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook. It’s also the first time Lawrence has served as the unequivocal star of a Russell film. Though she won a Best Actress Oscar for Silver Linings, she’s very much the love interest to Bradley Cooper’s lead in that film, with few scenes shot from her point of view. In American Hustle, she gets the “and” credit for a showy but relatively brief (in terms of screentime) role as the unpredictable wife of Christian Bale’s con artist character.

In Joy, she’s front and center in order to kinda-sorta play real-life businesswoman Joy Mangano, inventor of the Miracle Mop (among other products). The project was initially tagged as a biopic, but by the time press for the film began in fall 2015, connections to its real-life inspiration were downplayed. Lawrence’s character in the movie is never given a last name, and introductory onscreen text says that the film is inspired by strong women everywhere—adding “one in particular,” practically as a wink (reminiscent of the “some of this actually happened” tag preceding American Hustle). That distinction may be in place to smooth over the liberties a filmmaker like Russell will inevitably take when translating someone’s life story to the big screen. Though I don’t know much about Mangano’s real life, it’s safe to say that her family, contentious as they may have been, probably did not so closely resemble a David O. Russell supporting cast of unreasonable yellers and yammerers.

Moreover, the ditching of formal biography again allows Lawrence to play a role for Russell that seems ideal for someone about 10 years older than her actual age. In making this conceit work, Joy also draws upon her cinematic history with Russell; as much of a stretch as it requires to buy her playing a widow in Silver Linings (at age 22) and a single mom to a kid who looks about 6 in Hustle (at age 23), by the time she clocks in as yet another single mom to a couple of non-baby children in Joy (at age 25), she has accumulated the air of authority that would usually come from an older actor (or at least an actor who wasn’t concurrently playing the decidedly teenage Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games series).

Technically speaking, Lawrence is probably miscast in all three of her movies with Russell. But Russell, while an energetic and talented filmmaker, does not necessarily thrive on the technical. Based on the somewhat undisciplined nature of most of his films, and the fact that each successive movie with Lawrence employs an additional credited editor (Joy has four, including three veterans of past Russell films), he seems to find his movies, at least to some degree, in the editing room. Though some see him as a more mainstream, Oscar-baiting director following his 2010 comeback with The Fighter, the loose, messy sensibility of his earlier movies remains intact. Casting Lawrence with the magical (and not incorrect!) thinking that she can star-power her way past misgivings about the potential age mismatch further heightens the off-kilter weirdness he sneaks into familiar genres like the rom-com, the con-artist picture, or the biopic.

The addition of Lawrence into Russell’s world has emboldened his wackier sensibilities; he may not dabble in the anarchy (and undergrad philosophy) of I Heart Huckabees anymore, but his movies with Lawrence all have moments where they seem poised to make sudden ascents into musical delirium. Silver Linings Playbook hinges on a dance contest, which involves Cooper and Lawrence rehearsing routines and performing one, in full, at the film’s climax. American Hustle sometimes feels like a cast singalong, with Lawrence performing particularly bonkers karaoke to Paul McCartney’s “Live And Let Die.” And Joy, while less exuberant than its immediate predecessors, still teeters repeatedly on the edge of song and dance. Joy meets her husband, a singer, at a party, where he near-literally sweeps her off her feet with dance and eventually convinces her to perform “Somethin’ Stupid” with him in what the film’s narration vaguely and blithely refers to as the “town musical.” Before it can seem indulgent, the tenderness in Lawrence’s eyes diminishes any lingering questions about why Joy stays friends with this man when he becomes her ex later in life.

The more sustained section of the movie that goes behind the scenes at then-nascent cable channel QVC has more subtle intimations of musicals, specifically the backstage variety. The centerpiece of these scenes is a rotating set, and when Joy is set to make her TV debut, Russell holds the camera on her face as the set spins her into the spotlight, looking like a nervous ingénue. Lawrence, whose roles in Hunger Games and X-Men very much extend the toughness and resilience she displayed in Winter’s Bone, summons great, wordless vulnerability in this moment.

Throughout Joy, Lawrence’s face serves as an anchor—more so than the other two Russell films, stacked as they are with their respective ensembles. An ensemble of sorts is on hand in Joy, too, less out of necessity than the seeming possibility that Russell is a little hesitant about making a movie that focuses so intently on a single character. As a result, the supporting roles (including parts for Cooper and Robert De Niro, who have also appeared in Russell’s last three films) aren’t as well-drawn as in Silver Linings or Hustle, and Russell’s edit-room searching seems less assured than usual, like he’s fumbling around for some scenes he may or may not have forgotten to shoot in the first place.

It’s the least successful of their three films together, but a major reason Joy still works—probably better than it should, really—is Lawrence’s face. The film’s QVC exec played by Cooper says that performances on the home-shopping channel are “really about the hands and the voice—that’s the heart of it,” and while Cooper performs accordingly with big hand gestures, Russell goes another way with his star. He favors shots of Lawrence walking with silent purpose, her face furrowed and resolute, as in the scene where she marches to the amateur shooting range that’s set up next to her father’s business and asks to take a turn with a rifle.

That determination carries over to the film’s climactic confrontation with one of Joy’s rivals in commerce. It’s a dialogue scene, but it’s bookended with shots where Lawrence walks down the street in mirrored sunglasses, a dark jacket, and a new haircut, like she’s about to slip away and assassinate an unsuspecting target. Russell’s use of Lawrence’s face to tell his story is not so different from strategies employed by the Hunger Games movies—Catching Fire ends with a particularly memorable shot of Lawrence’s face turning from grief and shock to determination and rage, and it’s one of her best moments of film acting so far. But as decent as the Hunger Games movies are, they’re constricted by responsibilities to their source material and franchise maintenance; though Lawrence is their shining star, the films nonetheless often seem reluctant to stay with any particular imagery for longer than a few seconds. It’s telling that one of the signature images of the Hunger Games movies is one repeated with near-endless variations on their posters, more so than the movies themselves: Katniss Everdeen, surrounded by flames, aiming her bow and arrow.

Russell has his own version of this recurring iconography. Beyond the steely-faced determination, both the walking and the talking in the climax of Joy are distillations of a Lawrence hallmark Russell clearly loves: the moment where one of her characters walks into a seemingly impenetrable (and usually male-dominated) situation and takes control. In Silver Linings, it’s the scene where she stands up to De Niro’s character and explains in great detail why she hasn’t, in fact, jinxed the Philadelphia Eagles by spending time with his son (Cooper). In American Hustle, it’s a pair of party scenes where her purportedly anxiety-ridden and housebound character hits the town with her nervous husband and charms everyone around her, including a gaggle of gangster types who have intimidated everyone else in the vicinity. Instead of Lawrence standing alone with her weapon, the camera finds her holding court in a crowd of inferior dudes, and Lawrence holds the shot’s interest with her reading of her small talk, at once offhand and preening in her offhandedness.

Joy drops away the other people for its signature shot of Lawrence in sunglasses, a succinct and satisfying distillation of her dominance in Russell’s films; the actual verbal confrontation that accompanies this image is smaller and less crowd-pleasing than its equivalents in Silver Linings and Hustle (in part because it isn’t played for laughs). But if the movie itself is the least kicky of the three Lawrence/Russell pictures, it shows progress in other ways. It relies less on comedy, refuses to define Lawrence’s character in terms of the men in her life, and downplays what appears, in the previous films, to be Russell’s lusty feelings toward his star. (Even in the film where Lawrence essentially acts out a matriarchy origin story, Russell manages to get her down on all fours for at least one shot, albeit one less lingering or sexualized than similar shots in the other two films.)

Silver Linings Playbook is, technically speaking, the best-behaved of Russell’s three movies with Lawrence: It’s the warmest, least antsy, and probably the most accessible. But again technicalities fail to convey the full experience of a Russell film, because the dance sequences, while romantic and sometimes even delicate, also include shots of Lawrence stripped to a sports bra, and others where the camera readily locates, and lingers on, her behind in tight workout pants. If the leering lessens in American Hustle, it seems mostly attributable to Lawrence’s reduced screentime. Even then, her scenes have the echoes of a crush; behavior from her character that should seem insanely hostile (like obstinately placing metal in the “science oven”—that is, a microwave) is framed as delightful. And in fairness to Russell, Lawrence brings off that delight, even as she risks caricature with outlandish claims and a nasal Long Island accent. She’s a crazy person in glamorous, too-youthful drag; Russell generally love his characters and seems downright intoxicated by Lawrence in Silver Linings and Hustle. He gathers his composure a bit better in Joy.

A heterosexual male director making clear his (let’s say) warm feelings toward a female actor is far from unprecedented. But Russell’s eye for Lawrence is remarkable for the way it reflects public fascination with the star, far more so than any of the other filmmakers she’s worked with. (The Hunger Games movies, for example, are both respectful and respectable in that department—one area where the adaptations’ tastefulness serves them well.) In other words, while Russell’s gaze through the camera at Lawrence can land somewhere between awestruck and lascivious, he doesn’t feel alone in those thoughts. Entertainment journalists and aficionados fawn over her, particularly her penchant for off-the-cuff goofiness. Plenty of male film critics have fallen hard, too. Even back in 2011, when she appeared in a supporting role in the indie Like Crazy, multiple reviews noted how charming and worthwhile her de facto other-woman character was, despite boasting few actual characteristics beyond being played by already-beloved movie star Jennifer Lawrence. In her performances for Russell, Lawrence shows a knack for offhand comedy that bridges her signature Mystique/Katniss toughness and the goofier public personality that makes her a fun talk-show guest. Russell even toys with that insta-bestie media persona, intentionally or not, during Hustle’s aforementioned party scenes of Lawrence instantly winning over everyone she meets.

A collective cultural crush, of course, is just a simplified way of explaining what a movie star is, and Russell probably isn’t the only auteur in town willing to make cinematic googly eyes at Lawrence. Nor is Lawrence his sole muse in recent years. In a lot of ways, his other recent collaborators get more from his movies in terms of career boosts and artistic cred; Bradley Cooper has never been better than he is in Silver Linings and American Hustle, and while many of De Niro’s late-period performances are underrated, his three films with Russell are also handily the best three movies he’s done in the past decade. Yet it’s Lawrence, who could have easily moved on after she won her Silver Linings Oscar, who has become the face of Russell’s commercially successful second act as a filmmaker, and who has specifically pledged to work with him on anything in the future.

If she makes good on this promise, their collaboration may continue to essentially substitute for the usual work that a female star would log between action-movie franchises: the romantic comedies, the thankless girlfriend roles opposite other big stars, the occasional Oscar bait. Silver Linings, American Hustle, and Joy dabble in those areas, but they’re heightened versions of tried and true formulas—classic Hollywood narratives knocked for a loop into familial chaos, at once grittier and more ridiculous than their ancestors. Lawrence’s movie-star chutzpah, far less restrained than in her big-budget Hollywood roles, contributes mightily to that heightening effect. In these distorted visions, Lawrence’s cracked versions of the screwball love interest, the nagging wife, and the plucky businesswoman aren’t reacting to action-movie fireworks—they are the action. Her confrontation scene with Amy Adams in Hustle, for example, pops off the screen. Moments like this are emotionally believable while remaining slightly self-aware in their amped-up cinematic structure.

That’s why the caricatured style of American Hustle works for, not against, both Russell’s work and Lawrence’s—and maybe why the more subdued madness of Joy doesn’t coalesce with quite the same sense of delight. Even when their movies don’t entirely work, though, they crackle with life and possibility. To watch Lawrence in a David O. Russell movie is to be made aware of just how little leeway, how little inspiration, so many other talented actresses are allowed in their own vehicles. Russell may stumble through his self-created chaos while semi-discreetly ogling his star, but ultimately Lawrence gets to march in and take control.

Next time: A once-prolific director and one of his many muses.

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