I find myself in an unusual position in regard to the latest box office phenomenon. I haven’t read the books, and don’t intend to (no time and no interest, in that order). I approach it not looking for how well it hewed to the best sellers, or even for how it speaks to us to day vis-à-vis reality shows, politics or Young Adult female role models. I’m viewing it, simply, as a film.
As a film that is a stand-alone, it works for the most part. It’s well cast, well acted, generally well directed and looks good. The film lives or dies with Jennifer Lawrence, and it does both, in a way. What’s generally right either hangs on her shoulders or is reflected in her performance and casting.
There has been some talk about how Lawrence is—can you believe the terminology?—too fat for the role. Jennifer is a lovely, medium-figured young actress of impressive skill and sensitivity. Aside from the real harm that could be done to female tweens or teens in calling someone like Lawrence by that term, under it all is a genuine criticism that extends beyond the actress’s form. Knowing nothing other than the general plot before seeing the film, I expected that Katniss would share the same “lean and hungry look” as Shakespeare’s Cassius (Julius Caesar). For better or for worse, Lawrence has a soft, rounded look that doesn’t quite reflect the struggles of someone in her character’s position.
That wouldn’t be too noticeable if the entire film hadn’t followed the same pattern. It’s a little soft where it should be lean and strong, and rounded where it should be edgy. People are working hard to survive, and then they are picked in a diabolical cross between Survivor and Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery to fight one another to the death. For whatever reason, that upside down, grossly unfair world is presented as is. There’s hardly a note of anger or opposition, or even an attempt to escape. It’s “just the way things are.” There is a little historical explanation of how things got to this point, but it’s a hermetically sealed world, not resonating with ours in any internal way. Only near the end, when Cato (Alexander Ludwig) talks about himself just before his death, do we hear anything that connects us emotionally with the present.
The film’s strengths are also its weaknesses. Lawrence is clearly an actress to watch (see her Oscar-nominated turn in Winter’s Bone), and she has the uncanny ability to contain several off-times contradictory emotions at one time. She can look brave, fearful, insecure, and full of wonder all at once. She’s an acting first cousin to Carrie Mulligan. Yet that refusal to lock down on just one emotion sends some scenes soaring while over the course of the film leaves Katniss without the power and edge that the movie suggests she possesses. Based solely on the film, Katniss seems as if she should be more dark and specific than emotionally removed, which is how she is often played.
The world of the film suffers from the same problem as Lawrence. The material is necessarily dark, but the film leans towards a lovely, even painterly, palette, making the world prettier and softer than the events taking place in it—without exploring that irony. The action sequences work and then they don’t. Whether it was to keep the PG-13 rating or not, the scenes of teens dying are dispatched quickly, with a camera deliberately placed around the event rather than on it. The horror remains in the mind rather than on the eye, which keeps the rating and a distance from the carnage. Since teens slaughtering teems is anathema to most viewers, this keeps the film from a possible tipping point. Yet it turns out that almost all of the action sequences are treated in this same generalized manner. Having virtual air quotes around the teen killings seems to have a purpose, but keeping the viewer as unengaged in the other action sequences merely works to disconnect us from the film.
The scenes in the Capital are disconnected as well. Yes, there is beautiful food and an exquisite presentation of it, but the contrast with life back in District 12 is left largely unexplored. The costumes and behavior of the TV personnel suggests The Fifth Element, but without a context that makes any sense of it or comments on it for us. There is no sting to the outfits or over-the-top actions of these people, as they exist in their own unrelatable world.
Beside Lawrence, the casting seems spot on. Josh Hutcherson as Peeta fits nearly perfectly here. He’s strong enough physically (and made more so to our unbelieving eyes by the script’s insistence on his bakery muscles) as well as emotionally, but not strong enough that he doesn’t need rescuing by our heroine. He and Lawrence have no problem carrying the film. Happily, the obvious Team Peeta/Team Gale ridiculousness that will undoubtedly replace the Twilight boy-girl-boy conflict once the final film in that series comes and goes is only suggested here; we are all granted a temporary reprieve.
Stanley Tucci as TV host Caesar Flickerman (what a name!) proves once again, as if needed, that he can do anything. He gives a small acting master class for anyone with eyes to see. Donald Sutherland has a small part (for now?) in what could easily have been cast with an obvious heavy such as Malcolm McDowell. He brings humanity and depth in a small (for now?) but crucial role. He could have phoned in this part and no one might have noticed. Thankfully, he didn’t. As has been noted, Elizabeth Banks (Effie Trinket—quel nom encore une fois!) is nearly unrecognizable, but nails the part without taking it too far. Lenny Kravitz is not really an actor, but he brings some welcome breathing room and quiet life into the film with a gentle understated performance. Woody Harrelson’s casting is a near-cliché, but after his first sequence, he moves into a specificity that takes the role beyond the usual and expected.
Director Gary Ross may just be too soft for the material. Seabiscuit and Pleasantville are not necessary the first films one would look at to find a director suitable for this material. Rumors fly that in spite of the box office, that Ross would be replaced for the sequel. I don’t mean to damn him with faint praise, but his work here is “fine.” Time will tell if that is enough for the future.