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The Hunger Games
Starring Jennifer Lawrence,
Donald Sutherland, Josh Hutcherson

NEW ‘IT’ GIRL: Jennifer Lawrence brings depth to the role of Katniss in the first installment of “The Hunger Games.” Courtesy photo

The cultural zeitgeist is a funny thing. More often than not the thing that everyone is going bat-shit crazy for is probably not that novel. I really don’t have to say anything other than “Twilight” to sum up my feelings on just how terrible something extremely popular can be. The “Twilight” series has become such a magnet for abuse it’s no longer sporting. So, when I first heard of “The Hunger Games” being referred to as “the next ‘Twilight,’” it immediately killed every ounce of anticipation I may have had for the film.

Maybe killing those expectations was a good thing.

I was expecting a plate of warmed-over garbage. So, when I was served a halfway decent meatloaf sandwich, I found myself pleasantly surprised. “The Hunger Games” is not a bad film by any stretch of the imagination. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. At the same time, it’s not a great film either. Don’t believe the hype. It’s a very efficient, longer-than-necessary piece of social science-fiction saved by a lead actress who manages to take something pedestrian and turn it into something profound.

The basic premise: America has become a country of haves and have-nots. An uprising was quelled. Now, every year two kids are offered up to participate in a brutal reality show where the winner walks away with her freedom, and the losers end up six feet under. This wonderful dystopian future features a black-and-white world where the bourgeois upper-class prance around like neon peacocks and the second-class citizens live in rural squalor. There isn’t an ounce of subtlety to anything in “The Hunger Games.”

Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is a spunky little hunter from District 12. She has managed to survive in spite of seemingly insurmountable odds, all while taking care of her family. Her younger sister has come of age and will have her name entered in the lottery used to select the participants for this murderous spectacle. When her name comes up, Katniss volunteers to take her place. It’s a simple, pure act of love. She does it without so much as a second thought. Unfortunately, those second thoughts begin to creep in as she is transported to the Capitol to prepare for a life-or-death battle. She meets District 12’s other contestant, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). He’s strong, but quickly realizes his chances of survival are slim. Those odds become even more questionable after he confesses his feelings for Katniss.

My main problem with “The Hunger Games” is that the lead-up to the most dangerous game is far more interesting than the game itself. I like the world they were setting up. It was wonderfully bleak, garish and freakishly fascinating. A beautiful and terrifying society where Stanley Tucci can parade around in a blue wig, with teeth so white they’re blinding, while interviewing beautiful teenagers who are about to die. The film’s greatest sin is that I don’t get to spend enough time with the contestants. We know so very little about them that their deaths are ultimately meaningless. The only character we get to know at great length is Katniss. Rooting for her to win is a foregone conclusion. Since we’re only presented with one three-dimensional character, it’s the only one whose life has any value.

Once the games begin, it’s a very by-the-book affair. The concept has been done before and done better. The Japanese cult classic “Battle Royale” immediately springs to mind, as does the Arnold Schwarzenegger action romp “The Running Man.” Making murder a public affair isn’t the most original concept, but director Gary Ross did a great job of creating a believable environment for this kind of carnage to unfold. And the cast handle it with enough quality talent to give the premise more credibility than it deserves. While the whole movie is “The Jennifer Lawrence Show,” there is some fine support work being done by scene-chewers like Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks and the always excellent Donald Sutherland. The big surprise in the acting department is Lenny Kravitz, who brings a lot of depth and sincerity into a seriously underwritten role.

As I said, the real sell here is Jennifer Lawrence, who manages to make Katniss both awkward and beguiling. She’s a character who never finds comfort in any of the roles that are forced upon her: hero, savior, social darling, hunter or killer. Lawrence is an extremely gifted actress who shares something in common with another actor I have profound respect for: Ryan Gosling. She’s able to work with silence, as interesting to watch in a quiet moment as she is when speaking. Few actors are that gifted.

Ultimately, the film’s biggest failing is the lack of a killer instinct. I realize that in order to make a mass market crossover hit, one must minimize the carnage. I never felt as though the deaths were anything other than an obligation to fulfill the premise. I never got that moment when watching Katniss or Peeta compromise their values and murder someone to save their own skin. The deaths are always unavoidable accidents or spur-of-the-moment reactions. So much of the executions happen off camera or are the product of a happy accident that, even after 22 teenagers are brutally killed, I never felt as though the main characters ever got their hands dirty. That’s a cop out. While it doesn’t kill the film for me, it does wound the final product.

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