Ever since Jennifer Lawrence’s breakthrough role in “Winter’s Bone” I’ve been an ardent fan, but “Red Sparrow” makes me wonder what she’s doing with her professional life.
She plays Dominika, a Russian ballerina who learns to use her body, along with her mind, as a spy for the Putin regime. She’s impressive, as always, and Dominika does some clever double-or- triple dealing when her loyalties are tested by a good-guy American spy played by Joel Edgerton. But the movie is joyless and smarmy, with enough soft-core sex to turn it into the from-hunger games.
The title refers to “sparrow school,” a secret Russian program of instruction in the strategic sexual arts. Dominika is far from a flaphappy fledgling. She doesn’t want to be in sparrow school, which she calls whore school. But she’s been forced to serve her country as a new version of a sleeper agent by her vile uncle Vanya. He’s played by Matthias Schoenaerts, and he’s a heavy hitter in the SVR, a successor to the KGB.
The film is needlessly long film, and a long section of it is devoted to sparrow training, which is deadly serious, extremely silly and the best part by far. The unnamed and unsmiling instructor is played by Charlotte Rampling as a kind of Ninotchka without the wit or verve. “You are weapons in a global struggle for power,” she tells the recruits “Your body belongs to the state.” Her lectures are followed by seduction workshops and sexual tests that go beyond silly into shameless, but they do set up a feminist theme: the heroine’s struggle to free herself from the bondage of her wretched uncle and the male-dominated state. Then the movie betrays its theme with a lascivious focus on Jennifer Lawrence’s body, all the while examining the question of whether the two spies are falling in love.
Many of the locations, especially Budapest, look romantic, but the movie isn’t. Its cool heart lies with rough sex, ugly violence and the grim ironies of Dominika’s existential dilemma, and how she resolves it. Lawrence had the same director in three of her four “Hunger Games” features—Francis Lawrence, no relation—and they weren’t grim at all. They were enlivened by pulp energy and extravagant style, while everything that happens here is carefully calibrated. Events make sense, though parts of the plot are hard to follow, but they don’t make you grin with anticipation or gasp with excitement. The one exception to all of the calculation is a brief appearance by Mary-Louise Parker as a U.S. senate aide named Stephanie Boucher. Stephanie is a very small cog in a complicated screenplay, but Parker lifts her from the page and brings her to screwy, tipsy and delightful life. It’s the sort of tossed-off magic that Jennifer Lawrence has worked so often in the past, and that I hope she will work again.