Jennifer Lawrence starred in a movie that opened this past weekend. If you didn’t know this, you’re not alone – the film (mother!) was a certifiable box-office flop. Those who did see it apparently hated it.
As trainwrecks go, mother! had it all. A pair of talented, well-respected stars in Lawrence and Javier Bardem. One of the best directors in the game today (Darren Aronofsky). A trailer that portrayed the film as something; a film that portrayed itself as something else altogether. A (spoiler alert!) bait-and-switch ending that plays as religious allegory, not the horror thriller some expected. Critical confusion. Audience revolt. The list goes on.
The less said about mother!, the better. But this mess of a film gives us a chance to talk about Jennifer Lawrence, an actress who had a mess of a weekend herself and is an actress who really needs a hit. It’s time to ask the question – is Jennifer Lawrence capable of opening a movie?
Now, this is not to question whether Lawrence can carry a movie with her name atop the marquee. If anything, she’s displayed a unique ability to lift mediocre material to something superior. She was great in Joy, even if the material let her down. She was damn good in Passengers, a film whose botched marketing campaign sunk it before the film ever hit theaters, and should consider reteaming with Chris Pratt onscreen at some point. Hell, she’s even good in mother!, which will not be an awards-show contender come early next year, mostly because it is not a very good movie.
However, whether Lawrence can open a movie financially is a fair question. And, no, boffo box office for X-Men and Hunger Games installments doesn’t count, as those are pre-established properties that essentially sell themselves. In fact, Lawrence hasn’t anchored a non-franchise hit since 2013, when American Hustle raked in more than $250 million worldwide. Since then, non-franchise box office totals include just a shade over $100 million for Joy, a good but not great total, particularly for a Christmas-season awards contender. Passengers did earn more than $100 million domestically, but was still viewed as a relative disappointment. Now there's the outright disappointment of mother!, which opened with a paltry $7.5 million over the weekend.
None of this is to disparage Jennifer Lawrence the actress, who easily ranks among the most charming, talented, charismatic figures in Hollywood today. And her penchant for oversharing and storytelling humanizes her to an extent, inasmuch as a rich, famous, attractive person can be humanized. Hell, her relative inability to open a movie is not altogether on her either.
Simply put, we live in a cinematic age where franchises sell themselves, and by extension, movie stars have been marginalized by design. After all, if you’re a studio looking to start a franchise, why invest in some expensive, high-profile star when it’s far cheaper and easier to kickstart a franchise and let it create the stars. Remember, Vin Diesel wasn’t much of a name when the Fast & Furious franchise began, and the billion-dollar Avengers franchise essentially started on the back of Robert Downey, Jr., now Hollywood royalty but who at the time of the first Iron Man film was far from a sure thing.
There was a time when placing a name such as Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Jim Carrey, Will Smith or Adam Sandler atop the movie poster was pretty much a guarantee to open big and rake in profits. Those days are long gone. Even big-name stars like George Clooney and Brad Pitt are famous more for their charitable endeavors and personal lives than their movies of late.
But Jennifer Lawrence seemed different. She came off humble and personable enough to be relatable, and yet possessed enough star wattage to stand out onscreen. That’s how she rose to prominence in the first place, playing flawed characters in standout films like Winter’s Bone and The Silver Linings Playbook. She rode that wave into both the X-Men and Hunger Games franchises, choices that proved wise in that she was able to keep her name in the papers while her agents selected her next non-franchise project. For a while, this formula proved quite successful. Cracks, however, began to form.
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Her outspoken persona – once Lawrence’s biggest asset – eventually turned some fans off. The movies got a little bit worse. The box office totals sagged a bit, but nothing near the catastrophe that was mother!.
Fortunately, Lawrence has plenty of time to re-establish herself as the biggest actress in the game today. The upcoming spy thriller, Red Sparrow, looks promising and gives her another go at anchoring a non-franchise flick. And even if that flops, another X-Men film, due next year, will no doubt do big business.
From there, Lawrence should go one of two routes to recapture the magic that made her a star in the first place. She might consider serving as part of an ensemble, which is essentially what she did in some of her best roles, for example American Hustle and The Silver Linings Playbook. But her first stop should be a genre Lawrence has never really visited – the romantic comedy. This genre has a built-in fanbase, which will allow Lawrence to flex her comedic muscles while allowing her charm and charisma to shine through.
In short, it’s time for Lawrence the actress to take a hint from Lawrence the person – lighten up a bit. No need to be quite so serious all the time. Allow her natural personality to show itself on the screen, rather than be obscured behind the dark, artsy tone mother! aspired to but came nowhere close to reaching. And if Lawrence opts to stay the serious route in chasing awards and critical adoration, her place among the Hollywood elite is firmly entrenched either way. She's more than capable of opening a film; it’s simply time for her to choose one worthy of her talents.