March 26, 2012

Stay Hungry

by Steve Dollar

The Hunger Games

As much a spectacle for Halftime in America as the GOP primary circus, if vastly more sober-minded, The Hunger Games serves itself up as an Orwellian reality show in which a future parallel USA has ceded democracy to the totalitarian rule of the 1%, made recognizable by their goofy Ziggy Stardust costumes with hair by Edward Scissorhands. Nothing if not cross-reference-able, this adaptation of the Suzanne Collins' young-adult blockbuster is far too many movies in one to merely merit accusations of ripping off Battle Royale. Unfortunately, that's one of the more entertaining things about it.

A pop-culture phenomenon that's had Hollywood salivating for years, apparently, to get a sure-fire film franchise in front of the Twittering masses, the movie is itself much of what it describes: a grandiose and ballyhooed display designed to turn an unvarnished performer (Jennifer Lawrence/Katniss Everdeen) into a digital superstar—an inspiration, an icon, an ideal. That it succeeds, in spades, doesn't really mean that it's a success. The dystopian landscape and defiant, starving-class teen heroine would have been pure brain candy for my 14-year-old self, although in the 1970s, we fed our warped imaginations on Soylent Green, The Omega Man and A Boy and His Dog—way weirder and racier fare with the unapologetic zest of exploitation. This squeaky-clean episode feels antiseptic in comparison: though the story pivots on a stage-managed romance, sexuality surfaces only in a symbolic rubbing of miracle salve on an open wound.

The Hunger Games

As such, good old fashioned virgin sacrifice is the concept that underpins the drama, only the kids will slaughter themselves. The story begins in the Walker Evans landscape of some mythical West Virginia coal country, just around the holler from Winter's Bone, a hardscrabble place called District 12. Here, Lawrence, once again, seems to be the only useful member of her family, bow-hunting in the woods for random wildlife and, when the awful moment comes, offering herself up as game when her baby sister is picked in the annual lottery to represent the district in the Hunger Games—a throwback to gladiator rituals meant to keep the proletarians in check, rooting for their own to survive a nationally broadcast killing spree.

Although he seems to have been replaced by a cyborg sometime in the past decade, director Gary Ross was adept at the alternate-reality theme in Pleasantville, the 1998 film that also plopped a pair of teenage heroes (Reese Witherspoon and Tobey Maguire, back when their careers weren't even as far along as Lawrence's is now) into a repressive realm: a world without color! That's not the case here. Once Katniss and her male counterpart Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are swept away to the capitol of Panem, under the nattering watch of one Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks, impersonating Marie Antoinette on nitrous oxide), the movie is riot of extravagant hues. This pseudo future-world feels largely imagined as a riff on the perversion of media (see Network) and poodle-like hairdos. After the apocalypse, everyone will dress like they're backing up Prince in Purple Rain. But, in fact, it's Lenny Kravitz, playing fey, who shows up as costume designer for Katniss, conceiving a "girl on fire" theme aimed at making her a hit with the demographic.

The Hunger Games

The adroit casting also lassos Stanley Tucci as an emcee with cynical flourish and Donald Sutherland as the perpetually constipated President Snow, but it's Woody Harrelson who carries the film's first half. He plays Haymitch Abernathy, a onetime Hunger Games champion who now mentors fresh aspirants when he's not drowning in a Falstaffian excess of whiskey and turkey legs. The performance seems modeled on some sort of 19th century riverboat gambler crosswired with, say, a once-formidable Heisman trophy winner gone to seed, and its nuances cut through the forced, plastic qualities that shape everything else.

OK, almost everything. Once the games begin, Lawrence consumes every frame: She might as well be Xena: Warrior Princess. With her character's survival a foregone conclusion (there are still two sequels in the franchise), the dramatic engine is not "if" but "how." And since the screenplay neglects to develop any other juvenile characters beyond superficial traits—even Hutcherson only exists as a plot device—there's really nothing much at stake. Everything rides on fetishizing Lawrence as an avenging angel, yet one whose compassion prevents her from making a direct kill unless she's defending someone weaker than herself. The love scenes, in fact, are her communions with her weapon of choice, a taut string biting into her lip, whose furrows rhyme with the tiny notches on the metal arrow. Coal miner's daughter as brave new Athena, Katniss resonates as the perfect older sister, as self-reliant feminist, as "a teacher and a leader." Beneath the foofery and the CGI-haunted forest arena where death comes from all directions, the film is concerned with the importance of honor and integrity—much like any samurai epic or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It's just too bad that the movie takes itself so, so seriously (even the jokey stuff feels stale and heavy handed). Lawrence holds it all together, joining the new pantheon of female ass-kickers (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and so forth), but I wish her movie had as much taste for authentic flesh and blood as it does neo-fascist architecture and day-glo pompadours.

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Posted by ahillis at March 26, 2012 4:25 PM