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Was Jennifer Lawrence Too Young to Play Rosalyn in ‘American Hustle’?

Was Jennifer Lawrence Too Young to Play Rosalyn in 'American Hustle'?

Age is just a number. But what if that number is 23 and you’re Jennifer Lawrence?

It seems like just yesterday that the quippy, vanity-free, red carpet-impaired star was an indie debutante. Now she’s Katniss Everdeen, and muse of David O. Russell, who directed her all the way to an Academy Award last year, a Golden Globe win earlier this week, and likely to her third Oscar nomination this Thursday for her explosively brazen performance in “American Hustle.”

In a recent Film Experience column, writer Matthew Eng argues that America’s Sarcastic Sweetheart was simply too young for the part of Rosalyn Rosenfeld, a suburban housewife writ wild who’s also the only clean conscience in a messy film full of messy characters always lying to each other or themselves. Rosalyn is the flowers beneath the garbage, as she says of her sweet-and-sour nail polish. Eng writes:

‘Hustle’ is perhaps the first movie, post-Oscar, that knows and willingly presents not only Jennifer the Bona Fide Silver Screen Star, but also Jennifer the Jokester. The Comedienne. The Ham. In essence, Jennifer As We Know Her, except in period garb; nothing less, and yet nothing much more.

Is the problem that she doesn’t fully disappear into the role (a complaint other critics have leveled at the film) a testament to her shortcomings as an actress, or is it that we’ve gotten so balled up in Jennifer Lawrence the Persona that we can’t see straight? Are we gaga for the spiky women she portrays, or is it just Lawrence herself we’re in love with?

I’d argue both. In “American Hustle,” Jennifer Lawrence gets to play dress-up as much as Amy Adams’ scantily clad trickster: she gets to be Jennifer Lawrence the Id, going-for-broke while shaping Rosalyn into a deliciously comic creature, a more unhinged and unstable Betty Draper, a young Mabel Longhetti without the straightjacket. 

And while Rosalyn’s florid garb and wanton ’70s updo may be the stuff of broad caricature, amid all the spunk and the manic lip-syncing and the feline sexuality, Lawrence takes her to real and raw places in two key scenes: the bathroom kiss-off opposite Amy Adams, and a naked table-side confession to the man for whom she’ll eventually leave her husband. “I don’t like change. It’s really hard for me,” the caged bird sings.

In his eloquent column, Matthew Eng doesn’t just sling arrows. He admires the performance, though from a distance, calling Russell’s choice “age inappropriate” and a feat of “stunt casting,” as if Lawrence were some life-sized doll Russell gets to dress up and play housewife with:

If there is any one viewer who can honestly say that they believed –  even for a second – that Jennifer Lawrence was ever really that woman, unhappily married for years to that man, counting the days in that house, and nearly burning down that kitchen, can he/she please stand up?

Is the 23-year-old star too young for the part? Agewise, yes. You’re grasping at straws if you buy the generous gap of years between Rosayn and Irving (Christian Bale). But even if the character might’ve better tailored for a more mature actress like Marisa Tomei or Maria Bello (huh?) as Eng suggests, who cares? Lawrence oh-so effectively pantomimes Rosalyn’s turbulent inner life, even if an early-twentysomething couldn’t possibly know that life, that in her case, age really is just a number. And who’s counting? Lawrence is sublimely talented no matter how you dice it.

So what do the J-Law backlash and her recent Globe win portend for the Oscars? She’ll surely be among the list of names announced in the Supporting Actress category this Thursday, but fervent support for Lupita Nyong’o, in a more Seriously Important Film, still thrives. The whole issue begs a question that’s been on the table all season: Will the Academy be swayed by a film whose pleasures are easy and accessible, or a by a serious film about American slavery that leaves a great deal of responsibility with the audience?

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