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THE GREATEST

Jennifer Lawrence Is So Good. Why Are Her Movies So Bad?

‘Red Sparrow’ is the latest in a line of polarizing—if not outwardly bad—Jennifer Lawrence films. Yet each one seems to underline how talented she is.

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Jennifer Lawrence is our weirdest movie star.

She is hallowed, yet familiar. She’s ascended to her perch on the A-list pedestal, where she is the epitome of glamour and gravitas and Oscar-winning talent and worth. But she’s also taking rum shots with Stephen Colbert while calling Harvey Weinstein an “ass boil.” She’s untouchable, and she’s also our BFF.

While that juxtaposition has been written about ad nauseum, belying it all is one of the braver, if not more peculiar, film resumes of a movie star of her stature. The latest on that list, Red Sparrow, hits theaters Friday. It’s the kind of movie that has merited a warning from Lawrence herself, “If you’re a typical hater and you have a blog, don’t go! You’re officially totally uninvited. I would like to officially un-invite all my haters to go see Red Sparrow.”

We’re not entirely sure where we fall on that hater-blog paradigm, but we managed to see Red Sparrow before its star rescinded the invite. Not to belabor the point, but it is the weirdest choice of project for a movie star like Lawrence to embark on. It’s by no means good, as those “haters” Lawrence is referring to have already pointed out. But in some respects, that’s why we’re obsessed with and admire it—and certainly Lawrence, too.

She plays Dominika Egorova, a star Russian ballerina who is forced to become a certain kind of government spy, called a “sparrow,” when an injury ruins her career, leaving her broke with no other options for affording health care for her sick mother. Sparrows use sex and psychosexual manipulation (and again, sex) as their weapon. It’s a skill that requires all kinds of degrading training like stripping naked in front of classmates, having sex on camera, and subjecting yourself to rape by other recruits.

It’s a gruesome, often gratuitous movie that, while meticulously stylish, charges like a bull in a china shop into very delicate, though timely, issues about sexual agency, sexual power, male predators, and girls who are taken advantage of at their most desperate times. There are wigs and accents and gunfights and torture scenes and revenge missions. It’s so self-serious that at times you can’t resist viewing it as camp. (It’s early yet, but Lawrence’s delivery of “You sent me to whore school” might be the line of the year.)

In other words, Red Sparrow is another polarizing movie—Rotten Tomatoes has it at a middling 60 percent—and another transfixing, unexpected, and revealing star performance on Lawrence’s unpredictable resume. Do most movie stars at the peak of their fame and critical respect elect to do a wonky spy-thriller in which they play a Russian ballerina-hooker spy? We don’t have the numbers in front of us, but we’d venture… no.

The whole endeavor has unveiled yet another of Lawrence’s leading-lady talents.

A Jennifer Lawrence performance is typically an explosion. She emotes the entire person. There’s a rawness—sometimes even feral—to her characters, no matter where they fall on the spectrum of vulnerable to confident. But in Red Sparrow, she shows how powerful she can be behind the veil, withholding all her information. Nearly the entire performance takes place emotionally masked, revealing little about her true feelings. It’s a spellbinding new shade of her talents, even if in, yet again, a subpar film.

Lawrence has been at her stature in the industry—unequivocally super-duper famous—for long enough that it’s easy to forget that the 27-year-old hasn’t even been a movie star for a full decade. She only had a smattering of credits when Winter’s Bone premiered in 2010, garnering her the first of an astounding four Oscar nominations in six years, and booking her roles in two of the biggest movie franchises of all time.

That dichotomy almost too perfectly illustrates the separation in Lawrence’s recent career: some of the best acting we’ve seen, in some of the messiest movies.

She was just 23 when she won the Best Actress Oscar for her work in Silver Linings Playbook. And she hasn’t made a good movie since.

That may be trolling hyperbole. But it also may be… true.

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It’s a fascinating output from the actress who has, multiple times over the last few years, been labeled Hollywood’s Most Valuable Star.

The Hunger Games franchise saw diminishing returns, while her minimal contributions to the X-Men series as it wore on could neither be blamed nor praised for the wild undulation in quality between them. American Hustle has its ferocious supporters, and may they stand brave against the eye-rolls of those who recognized it as convoluted pastiche. Serena was buried. Joy couldn’t have more glaringly missed the tone it was aiming for. Passengers was a big-budget disaster to the point that it more closely resembled a satire of big-budget disasters than an actual movie.

Then there’s mother!, which is easily the most polarizing film of Lawrence’s career, if not of the last decade.

To some viewers, it’s a biblical allegory. To others, it’s a meditation on the tortured artist and his muse. And to more, it’s a confusing drama in which Jennifer Lawrence spends two full hours asking that various people please leave her house. Whatever you make of director Darren Aronofsky’s gonzo drama, Lawrence is irrefutably ferocious in the title role.

It’s a film that both landed on dozens of year-end Top 10 lists, but which also boasts the rare F Cinemascore grade from audiences. That dichotomy almost too perfectly illustrates the separation in Lawrence’s recent career: some of the best acting we’ve seen, in some of the messiest movies.

We might associate the world’s biggest movie stars with mediocre films all the time—Adam Sandler, anyone?—but when was the last time the star was an actor this respected, delivering performances this award-worthy, in films this scoffed at?

What does this say about Lawrence, though?

Does it reflect poor judgment when it comes to choosing projects? Bad luck? The challenge facing women in the industry seeking out worthy roles? Her own ability to elevate subpar projects with her talent?

We’d argue that it’s proof of her greatest quality: She’s a daring actress. She’s hardly the only actress to be so, but certainly the only one to do it from the mantle of World’s Most Famous Movie Star. She pursues risky, challenging material. The shoddiness of the end product might actually be more an indictment of studio meddling, a confidence in material that doesn’t measure up to the star’s own.

She’s reportedly taking a year off from on-set acting to develop new projects and also do some grassroots anti-corruption advocacy. That means that this is the last chance to see her at what might be considered the defining first stage of her career—and it’s been a fascinating one.

We wouldn’t necessarily endorse Red Sparrow as a film, but at the risk of contradicting what Lawrence has said about disinviting the haters, we’d encourage even her most vocal critics to RSVP to a screening. It’s easy to disguise a fine actor in a great film. But it takes a pretty bad movie to so clearly reveal our greatest movie star.