Jennifer Lawrence is back, and she’s smaller than ever! This is the unusual and unofficial selling point of Pavement, an intimate new movie that just debuted, with appropriate quietude, on Apple TV+. Lawrence has spent much of the last decade since the first hunger games film as one of the world’s biggest young stars. This makes Pavement – not quite a two-character drama, but close to one, about an Army Corps of Engineers veteran returning home from a traumatic brain injury in Afghanistan – feels like a reset, skipping everything the way back to winter bone, the Stark Backwoods Noir that garnered Lawrence’s first Oscar nomination. (She’s since been nominated three more times and won once.) It’s a good movie, and Lawrence is good at it, even if it plays like a conscious abdication of his star power.
In recent interviews, Lawrence spoke about some of the recent career choices that led her to take a break from acting, with the sci-fi drama Passengers and diminishing returns x-men series cited as projects that her former management encouraged her to stick to, despite her instincts. (It’s part of nearly every modern movie star’s media blitz: contrition for projects that didn’t quite work out.) The truth is, even Lawrence’s proudest moments – the blockbuster hunger games quartet and its three Oscar-nominated films in David O. Russell films – felt perfectly organized, even by the standards of an image-conscious star. In 2012, she starred in The hunger Games and Silver Linings Playbook, winning an Oscar for the latter. In 2013, she was in Hunger Games – Catching Fire and american hustle, receiving an Oscar nomination for the latter. In 2015, the final hunger games film has been paired with Joy; the Oscar nominee arrived at the right time, even if the film left some perplexed. Several of his other films from this period are, essentially, extensions of this Katniss strategy and prestige: his action star becomes Mystique in the X-Men prequels rounding out his main franchise, and Darron Aronofsky’s Mayhem Mother! serving as a nightmarish riff on the rowdy families of his films with Russell.
All of this has made Lawrence often feel like the joker in his own relatively sketchy filmography. The hunger games the movies are well done, but would they save several cuts above the YA adaptation glut of that era without Lawrence bringing such vivid emotion to the role of Katniss Everdeen? For all their big-budget scope, the show’s most memorable image is the shot that ends. Catch fire, of Lawrence’s face going from shock to rage to resolve. Her award-winning work in the Russell films is wilder: cast in a series of increasingly detached parts from her actual age in her early twenties, she spins a sort of slimy variation on her winter bone/hunger games relentless, whether it’s thwarting the superstitions of the OCD Eagles fan played by Robert De Niro in game book or vengefully singing “Live and Let Die” while primping for housework in Hustle. If these performances flirt with too much, that’s part of the thrill: watching an intensely charismatic performer test the limits of what she can do, perhaps transcending common sense along the way. Even in the X-Men movies, where Lawrence is often cast as a cashier, his Mystique is always glamorous, going from bare, blue kicks to sleek variations on “real” J-Law in X-Men: Days of Future Past and X-Men: Apocalypse. In apocalypse, Mystique has reluctantly become a symbol of mutant freedom and pride; the arc of these movies is that Lawrence becomes someone whose face would go front and center on a poster.
Lawrence’s star has arguably faded slightly over the past five years, and it’s instructive to look at the two non-author, non-franchise titles that contributed to it: The aforementioned sci-fi romance Passengers and the dark and trashy spy thriller red sparrow. They are both star towers; in Passengersshe’s such an attractive woman that Chris Pratt’s character wakes her from cryo-sleep on a long space mission, just to hang out with her, while red sparrow has her play a dancer who turns to espionage out of sheer force of will. But those slick productions don’t give him much to prepare against; the tension between his professionalism and his free-spirited unpredictability disappears. Both movies, to varying degrees, treat her like another beautiful body.
Pavement, then, seems explicitly designed to remind us of Jennifer Lawrence the great actress, more than J-Law the beloved (and then upset) celebrity, star and talk show personality. And it gets the job done, as director Lila Neugebauer gives Lawrence plenty of space without putting him through too many melodramatic moves. Lawrence plays Lynsey, a military engineer undergoing a long physical and mental recovery from a major brain injury, experiencing frustrations with her new limitations and her reluctant return to a life with no way out, she was ready to face great danger for escape – the fate of the post-9/11 soldier seen in many other homecoming stories of the past two decades. If Lawrence’s David O. Russell characters are notable for their willingness to boldly say and do rude things, Lynsey is someone who treats this quality as an unwelcome intrusion: At first there is a slow and mortified that she described a temporary caretaker’s life as ‘miserable’ out loud, rather than mean it; her injury left her struggling to process the difference. It’s a different form, much less intoxicating, to show off without make-up.
Lawrence has no trouble recalling; her performance is all about Lynsey trying to hold herself back in an already constrained situation, trying to act like she’s healing and adjusting, figuring out when to strategically deploy the signs of struggle she was trying to hide. It’s an admirable piece of cover-up from a star whose image has often played open-book accessibility. It’s also a bit, well, conventional. Lawrence can no longer be his film’s not-so-secret weapon; in Pavement, that distinction belongs to Brian Tyree Henry. He plays James, a man quietly reeling from his own personal tragedy, whose newfound friendship with Lynsey bears some resemblance to the self-medication he’s clearly practicing on himself: relaxing and potentially dysfunctional. Their bond teases the human volatility of familiar material. The struggle between human behavior and ticked off story elements emerges as the film progresses. By the time it reaches a slightly open ending, it feels like the film offers the least it can do to introduce a little ambiguity here and there.
respectable as Pavement that is, there are times when it also feels a bit like Lawrence’s penance – compensation for daring to apply his talent in a non-serious way, to have fun as a movie star. Look at her Don’t look up co-star Leonardo DiCaprio: He certainly has his serious plans, but many of his tortured heroes, anti-heroes and outright villains also have the verve of a cheerful performance. Lawrence can complete a mission like Pavementbut wouldn’t it be more exciting to see his version of the wolf of Wall Street, Gatsby the magnificent Where Once upon a time… in Hollywood? (Don’t look up was ultimately a bust for both, through no fault of either.)
Lawrence can be afforded that luxury again; his next project, his first outright broad comedy, might go even further. In the meantime, she obviously believes in the value of Pavementwhich goes well with winter bone. It’s almost an alternate future for Ree, the resourceful teenager born into poverty – which also feels, for now, that Jennifer Lawrence is backsliding, trying to find an austerity that no longer suits her.
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