Jennifer Lawrence Two Ways, or: Surprised by Joy

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My husband and I rarely make it to the movie theater. Between both of us working six days a week (at least), my writing, and the ever-climbing ticket prices, it usually doesn’t seem worth the hassle.

This year, though, thanks to a surprisingly good number of options at the box office and the generosity of family members, we made it for quite a few films this year. Jurassic World. Ant Man. The Intern. The Martion. Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. And, as luck would have it, we viewed two Jennifer Lawrence films–The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 and Joy–in less than twenty-four hours.

These movies couldn’t be more different, and neither could the respective heroines. That’s obvious, right? I mean, the one is set in a postapocalyptic dystopian wasteland hundreds of years in the future, while the other can be found smack dab in the middle of the decade of my childhood. The one is charged with the unrequested burden of saving the known world, while the other just wants to support herself. You can’t compare the two at all.

Except that you kind of can.


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I read The Hunger Games once, right before the first movie came out. Both of my roommates were big fans of the series, and over the course of a few snotty, hazy sick days, I managed to plow through all three books. I loved The Hunger Games and Catching Fire.

My venture into Mockingjay, however, culminated with me hurling my (borrowed) copy across my bedroom.

Nearly four years later, I stand by that decision.

*spoilers ahead–read at your own risk*

The conclusion to this bestselling YA series, which years after its last publication is still selling like hotcakes, is about as satisfying to me as the epilogue of Harry Potter and the Deathy Hallows, and for the same reason.*

*Don’t crucify me quite yet. I’ll delve into my qualms about Harry Potter–which overall, I absolutely adore–at a later date.

From the moment Effie plucks her sister’s name out of the bowl at the Reaping Ceremony at the very beginning, Katniss’s life becomes a series of trips to the gates of Hell and back.

She is forced to kill other children, lest she be killed herself. She helplessly watches on as Rue dies, and she spends days worrying that Peeta will slip away from her, too. She develops PTSD and receives no counseling.

Once she returns to Twelve, she lives in constant fear that President Snow will kill her, or worse, her family. She is forced into a fake relationship while her heart is elsewhere. She is forced into yet another round of the Games, where she watches even more friends meet their untimely ends.

She is ripped from her known reality and whisked away to Thirteen, where she is quickly made into Alma Coin’s puppet and put in the frustrating situation of being the face of the rebellion but having no power to do anything of substance. Her mental trauma goes untreated and seemingly unnoticed by everyone around her. She loses more friends, more family. She begins to suspect that the good guys are no better than the bad, only to have those suspicions confirmed.

And after it’s all said and done, after she helps topple a tyrannical dictatorship and prevent a new one from rising in its place, what does she do? She retreats alone to the same miserable, bombed out ghost town the government forced her to live in all those years. She ends up marrying Peeta because he makes his way back there, too. They have a couple of children. She still has nightmares about the Games, and probably always will, but at least they’re safe for now. Fade to black.

Um. . .excuse me?

The conclusion to Mockingjay differs so much from the two preceding books that it is almost physically jolting. The Hunger Games and Catching Fire both end on a note of triumph, of hope for the future. Mockingjay has nothing to offer but existential drudgery and despair.

The movie handled the story much better than the book did, but my hope that the tone would change was not fulfilled. I left the theater feeling beat down and depressed. Feeling like my investment in the series wasn’t worth it at all.

For what it’s worth, Jennifer Lawrence’s swan song performance as Katniss Everdeen was flawless. The raw emotion she lends to every character she plays brought a flat character to life and evoked empathy from me where the book could not. I cared about Movie Katniss, which makes the end of Mockingjay Part 2 even worse.


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Contrary to Mockingjay, I had no earthly idea what I was getting into with Joy. The trailer was deliciously ambiguous about the plot, which was refreshing and intruiging–these days, most trailers seem to contain spoilers galore. Even when I read a short synopsis of the movie, it didn’t sound all that great. But because I trust Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Bradley Cooper, and David O. Russell, I gave it a shot.

Man. Oh, man. Joy isn’t a movie. It’s a work of art.

Cinematographically speaking, it’s a beautiful, beautiful mess. In some ways, it reminded me of two other favorites, (500) Days of Summer and Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina.

Awkward camera angles. Theatrical staging. Stageshow-like dialogue. A very strange show-within-a-movie kind of thing. With an ordinary movie, I would have shrugged these techniques off and labelled the movie as haughty and unnecessarily artsy. But in Joy’s case, they only served to make the film stronger.

Joy is a modern feminist retelling of Cinderella. My husband pointed this out to me on the car ride back home on New Year’s Day. I responded to this by blinking slowly and stupidly before realizing of course it is. I’m still not quite sure how I missed it. (Perhaps he should be the one writing this blog.)

*Mild spoilers ahead–read at own risk*

Joy is the only grown-up in a world full of adolescent-minded people content to wallow in failure. Her parents aren’t dead, but they might as well be–her mother spends all day and all night tucked in bed, immersing herself in soap operas and ignoring reality, and her father slips effortlessly from one woman to the next. Her half-sister is snarky and judgmental. Her ex-husband loafs about in her basement two years after the divorce. Joy’s only supporter is her grandmother, who remembers her gift for creating and inventing and encourages her to pursue that aspect of herself. After a red wine fiasco with her father’s newest amor, Joy has a flash of inspiration: she won’t accept the expectation that she has to scrub on her hands and knees. Oh, no. She’s going to create a self-wringing mop.

What’s so beautiful about this movie is Joy’s refusal to succumb to her apparent destiny. All her life, her family drains her energy and hard work like a parasite. They practically beg her to join them in their pit of failure and despondancy. But she refuses, and through her own innovation, she pulls herself through. No prince required.

Joy is all about self-determination. It’s about taking control of your life, maybe even your destiny. It’s about confidence, hard work, and persistence trumping listlessness, laziness, and defeat. It’s about hope, and love, and. . .well. . .joy.


 

I’m convinced Jennifer Lawrence is the great actress of our times. When future generations look back at our era of cinema, she will be our Greta Garbo, our Audrey Hepburn, our Ingrid Bergman. In both her current movies, she proved once more that she is worthy of all the awards. She reached through the screen, twisted my heart, and made me wish I’d smuggled some tissues inside the theater.

The only difference is simple. Joy was worthy of her. Mockingjay was not.

 

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