In my line of work, hype and celebrity are occupational hazards. Every day my inbox is stuffed with news releases touting the Next! Big! Thing! You get numb to it after a while, but every now and again someone will come along you know is destined for something big.
Jennifer Lawrence wasn’t a star the first time I met her but you could tell it would only be a matter of time until she was. It was 2010, years before she would win an Academy Award or be known internationally as Katniss Everdeen. She was a struggling newbie with just a handful of credits, but a great big buzz surrounding her performance in Winter’s Bone. Her steely but vulnerable take on an Ozark girl who will do anything to keep her family together was garnering good reviews and the usual phrases like “breakout performance” were being thrown around, but this time it felt different. Real.
I was asked to host a question-and-answer period with her after a screening of the film at a theatre in Toronto, but first we planned a quick dinner with a publicist at a nearby hotel. I’ve eaten with a lot actors who order a piece of steamed fish, no butter, no oil and then, rather than actually put it in their mouth, simply move it around the plate until the waiter takes it away.
Not Jennifer Lawrence. She ordered a steak dinner with sides and ate it all while showing us a cell phone snap of her costume for the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo audition. As she chatted, laughed and enjoyed dinner, it was apparent what she wasn’t. She wasn’t precious or overwhelmed at being on the cusp of something big. She was doing something rare in this business — being herself and enjoying the ride. In other words the woman you now see photo-bombing Taylor Swift on red carpets or starring in this weekend’s The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 is the real deal, someone completely at ease with herself in a business that doesn’t usually allow for that.
Later, on the way to the theatre, she opted not to take the provided limo. Instead we walked down Bloor Street. It was on the chilly side, so she draped my suit jacket over her shoulders. Along the way her high heel caught in a crack in the pavement and snapped off. Rather than hobble down the street, she kicked off both shoes and walked barefoot the rest of the way, her broken designer shoes in hand.
At the theatre I don’t remember what we talked about on stage. When I think back on the night I reflect on the sweet spot she was in, career-wise. She was about to become one of the youngest Oscar nominees ever for best actress in a leading role and yet there wasn’t an ounce of pretension about her. Charisma? Yes. Talent? In spades.
I don’t claim to have some sort of celebrity ESP, but that night I knew in my gut I had met a star, a feeling reaffirmed when I saw her carry the Hunger Games movies on her back and become a leading voice in the fight for pay equality for women in Hollywood.
Want to see a superstar? Watch the last scene of the Joy trailer. Shot on an iPhone as test footage it’s a close-up of Lawrence’s face as she fires off two shotgun rounds. “My name’s Joy, by the way,” she says. It’s a simple image but a magnetic one. It’s a movie star moment from the rare actor who commands our attention every time she’s on screen. Sometimes you just know.
Even Oscar winners make mistakes. Meryl Streep starred in “She-Devil.” Daniel Day-Lewis camped it up in “Nine” and “All About Steve” was a career nadir for Sandra Bullock. Now its Jennifer Lawrence’s turn to appear in a movie that will one day be best remembered as an entry on IMDB’s Bottom 100 list.
Lawrence plays the title character, the ambitious wife of George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper), a lumber baron struggling to keep his business afloat in depression era North Carolina. A miscarriage drives a wedge between them, a rift exacerbated by financial trouble, betrayal and the arrival in town of a son George fathered by another woman.
“Serena” has all the makings of an epic story. Imagine “There Will be Blood” built on a base of timber instead of oil. Betrayal, jealousy, murder and money swirl around the central characters, but instead of combining to create a compelling narrative the elements collide in a big bang of schlock. From the broad southern accents to the dirt-smeared Rhys Ifans as Serena’s violent lap dog, everything about the movie verges on caricature.
The reteaming of Cooper and Lawrence after their “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle” success proves that lightening does not strike thrice. The duo had chemistry to burn in their previous pairings but fail to set off sparks here. As George and Serena they are ruthless and selfish, which should be the stuff of interesting characters, but the story throws so many hurdles their way that eventually it becomes one big, boring blur.
Add to that director Susanne Bier’s habit of shooting everything in intense close-up and you have a far too up-close-and-personal look at some of the least captivating characters to come down the pike in some time.
In the big picture “Serena” isn’t an all out disaster, but because of the above-the-title talent involved it is a major disappointment.
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence first paired off in Silver Linings Playbook — he was a divorced substitute teacher, jailed for beating his wife’s boyfriend half to death; she was a troubled widow who needed his help to win a dance competition — and sparks flew.
Next they shared scenes, but no romance, in American Hustle. And, this weekend, they make it a trifecta with the release of Serena. Based on the novel by Ron Rash, Cooper and Lawrence play husband and wife lumber barons whose marriage becomes strained after she suffers a miscarriage. Despite having shared love scenes in movies, Cooper says they have kept the romance onscreen.
“I mean, first of all, I could be her father,” he says.
The re-teaming of Cooper and Lawrence in Serena proves that lightning does not always strike thrice.
The “it” couple had chemistry to burn in their previous pairings but fail to set off sparks here. As George and Serena they are ruthless and selfish, which should be the stuff of interesting characters, but the story throws so many hurdles their way that eventually it becomes one big, boring blur.
Some onscreen couples, however, have managed to keep the flame alive through several films.
After a 16-year separation, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan — the pre-eminent cinema sweethearts of the 1990s — will reunite in the World War II drama Ithaca.
The three rom coms that made them superstars, Joe Versus the Volcano, Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, were fuelled by the platonic chemistry they share in real life.
“He makes me feel less alone,” says Ryan.
Kate Winslet and co-star Leonardo DiCaprio are so close in real life that her children refer to him as Uncle Leo. As Titanic’s star-crossed lovers Jack and Rose, they defined romantic tragedy for a whole generation before recoupling 11 years later in the feel-bad love story Revolutionary Road.
Despite what fans thought, their friendship never turned romantic off-screen. “He always saw me as one of the boys,” said Kate.
Despite falling in love over and over again in movies like The Wedding Singer, 50 First Dates and Blended, Drew Barrymore says she and Adam Sandler have exchanged nothing more than a “church kiss.”
“That’s probably why we’ve been able to stick together all these years,” she says, “because there never was that awkward moment.”
The lesson learned is that chemistry off-screen often leads to good results on the screen, but not always. Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe fogged up the lens in Some Like It Hot, but reportedly did not like one another.
“American Hustle, ” the new film from “Silver Linings Playbook” director David O. Russell, bristles with energy.
Imagine the love child of “The Sting” and “Ocean’s Eleven” infused with the verve of the frenetic last thirty minutes of “Goodfellas” and you get the idea.
Branded with the disclaimer, “Some of this actually happened,” “American Hustle” is a fictionalized retelling of the Abscam scandal, an elaborate FBI takedown of corrupt government officials.
Christian Bale plays Irv Rosenfeld, a low level con man with a paunch and Trump-esque comb over. He makes a comfortable living, enough to support his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), their son and his mistress and partner-in-crime Sydney (Amy Adams).
His life goes sideways when Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious FBI agent, threatens them with arrest unless they help him run a complicated corruption investigation involving New Jersey mayor Carmen Polito (Jeremy Renner) and other high ranking officials.
There’s a zany tone to “American Hustle.” It plays like a heightened version of real life. Perhaps it is the outrageous 1970s styles—all big hair, wide collars and flared pants—or the edgy, slightly larger-than-life performances from the top-notch cast, but the film feels one step removed from reality. Settle into “American Hustle’s” world and the darkly humorous ride is an enjoyable journey.
Bale leads the cast, but it is very much an ensemble. As the dumpy Irving he is a mass of contradictions. He’s a confidence man with a conscience; a man who feels it’s wrong to entrap politicians so soon after the public cynicism about elected officials after Watergate and Vietnam. Trapped in a loveless marriage, he’s a philanderer who is reluctant to leave Rosalyn because he wants to do the right thing for his son. He genuinely likes Carmine even though he’s about to set him up to do some real jail time.
Bale brings some real complexity to a character who could easily have been a stunt. Some actors might have relied on the weight gain and the bad hair to do the work, but Bale brings him to life and even makes you feel sorry for him.
The standout, in a smaller role, is Lawrence. Realistically she may be too young for the part, but as “the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate,” she’s perfectly cast. With a thick Long Island and perfectly lacquered lips, she plays Rosalyn as a creature of pure emotion, passionate one second, needy the next, driven by jealousy and dysfunction and one too many self-help books.
Adams, Renner and Cooper also distinguish themselves playing preposterous characters with one thing in common—they aspire to be something they are not. Everyone on display is on the hustle, looking to reinvent themselves, and that desperation is what gives the movie its dynamism.
As a backdrop Russell hits all the right period notes, particularly with the music. He uses archival music from the likes of Elton John, Electric Light Orchestra and The Bee Gees to set the mood, but instead of acting as a greatest hits collection of the Me Decade through clever editing it sounds like a soundtrack.
“American Hustle” is one of the year’s best. It’s an entertainingly audacious movie that will doubtless be compared to “The Wolf of Wall Street” because of the similarity in tone and themes, but this time around David O. Russell has almost out-Scorsese’d Scorsese.
Bradley Cooper’s continued push to distance himself form his most famous character, the slime-ball Phil of “The Hangover” fame, continues with “Silver Linings Playbook,” a David O. Russell film that pioneers the genre of mental illness rom com.
Cooper is Pat Solitano a separated substitute teacher, jailed for beating his wife’s boyfriend half to death. Now his wedding song, “My Cherie Amour,” sends him into rages and he has severe control issues. After eight months being institutionalized he’s released into the reluctant care of his parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver). His recovery is slowed by a fixation on his ex-wife, but helped along by a kindred spirit, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) a troubled widow who needs Pat’s help to win a dance competition.
Cooper stretches here, displaying his well-honed comedic skills but tempering the jokes with some serious dramatic chops. He desperate to rebuild his life and Cooper shows us how he slowly gets the building blocks in order to achieve his goal. It’s nice work that turns on a dime from manic to awkward to disheartened, often in the same scene.
Director David O Russell (“The Fighter,” “Three Kings”) visually echoes Pat’s various states, using the camera and zooms and fast cuts to give us an idea of the mental state of the main character.
Vying for attention are Lawrence and De Niro. Lawrence brings considerable charm and chops to Tiffany. Her understanding, but slightly icy stare as Pat meets her for the first time with the greeting, “You look nice. How’d Tom die?” is skilled, subtle and effective.
Ditto De Niro, except for the subtle part. He hands in a broad performance as a father who couldn’t ever relate to his son. Their relationship is based on a mutual love for the Eagles football team and dad’s belief that Pat provides some sort of mojo for the team during the playoffs.
So, good performances all round, but the last half is marred by too much repetitious dialogue—arguments that go nowhere—and football superstition that leads the story far afield from where it began.
Mental illness is a complicated subject that the film doesn’t exactly treat lightly. Instead “Silver Linings Playbook” uses it as a plot device