Big Hot Mess: Jennifer Lawrence, Anne Hathaway syndrome, and ‘mother!’

Posted in Blog, Movies, What's Streaming? by - December 21, 2021
Big Hot Mess: Jennifer Lawrence, Anne Hathaway syndrome, and ‘mother!’

Originally, I debated using Red Sparrow for this piece, because mother! is seen to be more akin to director Darren Aronofsky’s wild, self-aggrandizing mess. I see it instead as a failed Jennifer Lawrence (henceforth occasionally referred to as J-Law) vehicle. However, Red Sparrow is pretty bland, and writers would use it in the same way I’m using mother! anyways. I did want this to be a J-Law piece in honour of the release of the new Adam McKay film Don’t Look Up, as it’s the thirty-one-year-old actress’ return to theatres for the first time in two full years, but it’s tough to know what the lens should be to interrogate her career in the latter part of the 2010s.

Part of that has to do with how spectacularly Lawrence has fallen out of the public eye, and arguably through no fault of her own. Unfortunately, this is not a new phenomenon. Many a young actress has drawn the ire of being “too prominent,” or as I like to call it, “Anne Hathaway syndrome”. I use this to refer to the trajectory of the bubbly young female actress. These actresses wind up being deemed to be “annoying” and “hateable”. Hathaway has had this issue in throughout much of the twenty-first century; her teary-eyed Oscar speech for Les Miserables that began with a stage-whispered “it came true,” drew outright derision for being “performative.” At one point, a psychology professor made the wild claim (is there any other kind that comes from a psychology professor) that Hathaway’s career success was an ever-visible reminder of the 2008 global recession. That’s the kind of polarizing extreme that gets me to name a whole phenomenon around you.

Recent times have been much kinder to Hathaway, which suggests a redemption is possible (in fact, it’s probably likely) for Lawrence. But the parallels between the two careers are so apt, they literally overlap each other. Winning an Oscars drew Hathaway scorn. That same night, Lawrence cemented herself as an audience darling for a quirky moment. That night, she tripped up the stairs on the way to accepting her award. The difference between the receptions for each’s career defining moment largely has to do with a perception of authenticity. Hathaway has long been dubbed “a theatre kid,” which is a roundabout way of saying that her actions are “performative.” Lawrence on the other hand was deemed to be “real.” Look at how she falls up the stairs! It’s so relatable! #Goals

Much like Hathaway, Lawrence too became a household name through franchise vehicles while simultaneously appearing in meaty, Oscar-bait style projects. In between finishing off The Princess Diaries franchise and starring in mega-hit The Devil Wears Prada (did we really live in a world where Devil Wears Prada was a megahit? God what a glorious time that must’ve been), Hathaway starred as Heath Ledger’s wife in Brokeback Mountain.

Lawrence, meanwhile, got her career lift from Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone, which should be no surprise to anyone as Granik is a star maker (see Mackenzie, Thomasin). From there, she parlayed a best actress nomination into not one, but two franchise leads. One, The Hunger Games, was quite possibly the most popular IP on the planet at the time. Hunger Games was a four-film series, meaning that we got one Lawrence mega-project every year from 2012-2015. The other, was for an X-Men run that allowed Lawrence to exist inside the two biggest forms of media property in the early 2010s—the superhero film and the dystopian YA adaptation. In the in-between time, Lawrence won an Academy Award got another nomination for American Hustle.

During the award ceremony for the latter film, Lawrence famously took way too big of a bite during a ferociously cringe pizza delivery segment. That took place during a nightmarish evening of Ellen hosting Oscars (somehow, still one of the better host jobs in modern times). Once again, the narrative surrounding Lawrence was about her relatability. Because let’s be real, most people eat pizza violently (if you don’t you’re lying). And I’ll cop to the fact that I have fond memories of American Hustle, a truly bad film, solely on the basis of Lawrence’s “science oven” scene.

I don’t think it’s a controversial take to suggest that Lawrence is a talented actress, something that is very apparent in mother!. She has a magnetism about her that makes a compelling screen presence, but she really tunes in to the film’s she’s making. There’s not a ton of great films that have Jennifer Lawrence in them, but she’s usually the best part of the bad films that she is in. In mother! you can see this through the fact that the film is constantly using her actions to guide the editing. It’s evidenced by the fact that the film routinely uses her gaze as the conduit for its editing design.

For example, during our introduction to Adam (Ed Harris), every cut matches a facial expression that Lawrence provides. I am a bit reticent to doll effusive praise on J-Law. Well, if only because I think it’s equally un-feminist to do the pure redemption tour, as it is to do the unbridled hate tour. But I also think that Lawrence is someone who you build the structure of your editing around.

Ultimately, Lawrence would wind-up being nominated for another David O. Russell vehicle in the form of 2016’s Joy. By then, the unbridled hate tour would be in full swing. At this point, Lawrence would give a version of a story that she had previously given in 2013 about using sacred Hawaiian rocks as a scratching post. However, this time around the response was vitriolic. Some went so far as to caption her attempt at her usual self-deprecation, which I have to remind you was beloved…beloved just four years ago when it was falling down at the Oscars, as being the height of being “evil and white.” If you think about it, that’s a pretty baffling statement. The most “evil and white” thing that happened in 2016 is something Jennifer Lawrence did four years prior? Really? C’mon.

Admittedly, Lawrence’s mea cupla was pretty poor, largely because she had told this story in 2013 to ostensibly no response! It’s not hard for me to imagine her being baffled that the response was so different this time around. Look, Jennifer Lawrence isn’t a saint. It’s probably pretty important to recognize that she is a privileged individual, someone who is wealthy, white, and cisgender. We definitely should not be using an amusing anecdote mentioned on the late-night circuit as a source of deep cultural insensitivity. But at the same time, I have a hard time raking someone over the coals for giving the people what they’ve clamoured to want from you for years. In doing so, some branded Lawrence a “try-hard,” another form of Hathaway’s long-standing perception as a “theatre-kid”. The message could not be any louder: “you’re fake. We hate you. Why don’t you just go away already?”

Anyway, Lawrence got roped into mother! because she was dating director Darren Aronofsky at the time. More importantly, mother! mirrors the post-2014 segment of Hathaway’s career. After a turn in Interstellar (likely a favour to Christopher Nolan), Hathaway pulled back from the spotlight. Her turns in The Intern and Colossal (two poor films) came out during dead seasons as counter-programming. Hathaway’s conscious departure from stardom is something that Lawrence would do post-Passengers. As the press tour has swung into full-swing for Don’t Look Up, Lawrence has reluctantly discussed her self-imposed exile. In an interview for Vanity Fair, Lawrence mused that she felt that “everyone had gotten sick of [her],” which is a bluntly apt way of describing the phenomenon I’ve been discussing above. Really, the biggest difference between Lawrence and Hathaway is that the former did what happened to the latter in the double time.

The smaller difference between the two actresses lies in what mother! is. Maybe what Hathaway needed was a project where the blame could be dumped on an egomaniacal director. I remember the mother! wars of 2017, and what I distinctly remember about those wars was that people, grudgingly or otherwise, all seemed to be on board with Lawrence’s performance. When the Razzies pulled their usual stunt of grandiose obnoxiousness and nominated Lawrence for worst actress, backlash was immense, probably more so than usual.

mother! is the kind of film that gets an “F” cinema score (one of just 22 films to have ever done so). The film earned that score on the basis of its inability to be marketed in any capacity. It’s a film that also gets an “F” cinema score because if you dislike mother! you really dislike mother! I’ve got friends who earnestly believe that this is, without a doubt, the worst film ever made. I’m deliberately using friends in plural here. I also have friends who love this film, and enthusiastically see it as one of the best films of the decade. Every description or review of the film includes the phrase “heavily polarizing” somewhere in its confines.

In Aronofsky’s “heavily polarizing” thing (film has too many specific connotations to apply such a term to mother!), Lawrence ostensibly plays Mother Nature who finds herself happily living in a beautiful home alongside God (Javier Bardem), referred to as simply “Him”. Their bliss likely represents a metaphorically constructed garden of Eden. That’s ultimately thrown for a loop when Adam and Eve (Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer respectively) arrive to spoil the party. Mother is reticent to let them stay with her and Him. But he’s procrastinating on writing the masterpiece that he’s attempting to finish, and so any company is good company.

What ensues is a procession of sketched ideas that parallel both the bible and real-world occurrences. There are innumerable upsetting scenes, but one of the most upsetting involves a large group of people attempting to each Mother’s baby. As someone who definitely went to a Catholic School, I’m pretty good at spotting the fact that this is a very silly “body of Christ” allegory. I know this because I know that “He gave His only Son,” has meaning. I also know that here, that meaning is so divorced from its context that it becomes meaningless.

You might be able to already see the problem inherent to mother! from the above plot description. The film only really works if you view it as an eighth-baked allegory. And even then, it doesn’t really work all that well. If you’ve grown up Catholic like I have, then the beats become easy to pick up on. At one point, Bardem helps Harris’s Adam’s knock off prayer to the porcelain God. (He’s already done enough fawning over the “real” God). The film cuts to a medium-close up of a really gnarly looking wound on Harris’s right ribcage. Some of you know your Bible even halfway well. So you know that the next scene will introduce Eve, likely carved from the hacked out rib on Harris’s right side.

The biblical parallels help you put together the metaphor. However, it’s the weirder touches that effectively draw the film into the territory of self-induced parody. At one point, Kristen Wiig shows up to play God’s publicist (the herald in terms of the film’s allegorical parlance). The herald starts rounding people up for mass executions, and demands that people destroy Mother Earth. This isn’t exactly subtle. But I’ll be as dense as the film wants to be in concluding that the text is probably about the desecration of this big blue marble that we all live on.

Yet, the film kind of works. mother! is one of those texts that it annoys me to talk about because the negative reaction is so visceral that my lukewarm positive response feels like a stance I must defend. I have a hard time seeing this film as an all-encompassing blight upon humanity. Aronofsky’s tone is so serious, that the film is impossible to take seriously. This is a film which features a wholly superfluous jump scare featuring a frog in a boiler room, after all. All of the that is trapped inside a film which is designed as an elaborate climate change allegory. At one point during the film’s exhaustive press tour, Aronofsky claimed that “if you try to unscrew [the film], it falls apart,” and thus “you shouldn’t overexplain mother!” The problem is the film’s nature demands some explanation, where it immediately falls apart…

Outside of Lawrence, Bardem is probably my favourite part of mother! In keeping with Aronofsky’s allegorical bent, Bardem plays creative as God. This is in line with the nature of the film, leading me to believe that Bardem is also stand-in for Aronofsky himself. Regardless of if this is actually the case, I choose to believe that it is so for many reasons.

Choice among these is the fact that God is portrayed in mother! as a narcissistic, fame-crazed lunatic, a form of portrayal that I am here for in any capacity. I love when films make God the same idiot as we are. It’s an approach I find far more interesting than the Zach Snyder approach of making God some all-powerful deity, whose nature is to be dissected. If As in Heaven, one of 2021’s best films, has taught me one thing, it’s that God can be kind of a jerk.

In making himself as God, the kind of a jerk kind of God, Aronofsky engages in a form of self-aggrandizement via self-flagellation. There’s a perverse meta-quality to watching a film where Bardem plays a creative who neglects the needs of his partner. And that happens inside a film where the director’s partner plays said partner. That Aronofsky and Lawrence broke up right afterwards adds to this wildness. It’s another marker of the film’s lack of seriousness. That Aronofsky goes the Von Trier route—movie-making as screed for one’s capacity as a genius wretch.

Frankly, Aronofsky needs Lawrence in mother! Her presence gives the film some form of grounding. Moreover, he actually focuses the text around her. In doing so, he provides a sympathetic figure at the centre of the film, something that the film desperately needs. Each of the smaller injustices Bardem levies upon her rankles us. Then, when Aronofsky wants to pull the rug on us, it does ultimately have an impact.

In my own eyes, the best performance of all time is Isabelle Adjani in Possession. Lawrence doesn’t have the same pull, but the performance is working from a similar space, because Aronofsky tires to force us into her perspective. In a sense, the editing does most of the acting for her. But without Lawrence, it’s hard to imagine the film having any real impact. Without her, the film would likely truly become the risible piece its haters believe that it is.

If Don’t Look Up is any indicator, Lawrence is probably going to wind up far away from mother! She’ll settle into a holding pattern of quiet, for your consideration-y roles, likely biopics in some capacity. She might even win an Oscar again. And every year, we’ll get “is it time to finally stop hating Jennifer Lawrence” pieces. None of these pieces will acknowledge the heavy lifting mother! did to get her to that place. Except this one. Because mother! is such a big hot mess, it repels the logic of stardom. Sometimes, what you really just need is for people to realize there are far worse evils out there than something you did in 2013. If you can do that inside a irreverent, half-baked allegory as a favour to your partner, well, then so much the better.

This post was written by
Thomas Wishloff is currently an MA student at York University. He is new to the Toronto Film Scene, but has periodically written and podcasted for several now defunct ventures, and has probably commented on a forum with you at some point. The ex-Edmontonian has been known to enjoy a good board game, and claims to know the secret to the best popcorn in the world.
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