TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Film critic David Edelstein has a review of the new thriller "Red Sparrow," starring Jennifer Lawrence as a Russian prima ballerina turned spy. It's directed by Francis Lawrence, who worked with the actress in the last three films in the "Hunger Games" series.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Jennifer Lawrence is a wonderful dramatic and comic actress, but she can't pass for the star of the Bolshoi Ballet, the so-called pride of Russia, in the espionage thriller "Red Sparrow." Her general gawkiness, the kind that's bred out of Russian dancers, is central to her charm. And though it's fun to watch her stretch and hold her neck like a prima ballerina, for the first time on screen, she's a stiff. It doesn't help that her character becomes a spy, which forces Lawrence to muzzle the openness that made her a star. And it really doesn't help that the script is a bloody mess.
"Red Sparrow" is a long slog, almost 2 1/2 hours, but it is interesting as another in a line of female-centric spy thrillers that began in 1990 with Luc Besson's "La Femme Nikita." The idea is that a woman's power is double-edged. As a sparrow, a spy recruited based on her attractiveness, Lawrence's Dominika is trained to use her body and feminine wiles as a weapon to entrap men. But that training, for the most part overseen by men, enslaves her, both physically and psychologically. That idea isn't just the subtext of "Red Sparrow." It's explicit in every scene. Her leering uncle, a Russian intelligence higher-up, played by Matthias Schoenaerts, essentially pimps her out after a career-ending injury. She goes along to pay her fragile mother's medical bills. Another higher-up lectures her, your body belongs to the state. Given the amount of nudity Lawrence does, it belongs to the studio, too, though she was obviously better paid than her character.
The minimal suspense comes from whether Dominika will be able to take back ownership of her body and what will happen if she falls in love with the target of her mission, as agents in these sorts of movies tend to do. He's Nate Nash, an American CIA operative played by Joel Edgerton. And Dominika's assignment is to ascertain the name of a mole way up in the ranks of Russian intelligence. She travels to Vienna, where she puts on a bathing suit to catch his eye. They meet again at a reception.
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JOEL EDGERTON: (As Nate Nash) Dominika Egorova.
JENNIFER LAWRENCE: (As Dominika Egorova) You know my name.
EDGERTON: (As Nate Nash) You told me.
LAWRENCE: (As Dominika Egorova) You stole my ID from the pool.
EDGERTON: (As Nate Nash) That would be illegal. Were you just looking for me?
LAWRENCE: (As Dominika Egorova) I'd know where to find you if I was.
EDGERTON: (As Nate Nash) You see, I'm curious. Did you want me to know that you were following me, or are you just real clumsy?
LAWRENCE: (As Dominika Egorova) You Americans always think the rest of us are so interested in you, don't you?
EDGERTON: (As Nate Nash) So what made you want to become a translator?
LAWRENCE: (As Dominika Egorova) My mother is unwell. If I work for the government, the state helps me take care of her. My uncle helped me get the job.
EDGERTON: (As Nate Nash) Your uncle is a very powerful man.
LAWRENCE: (As Dominika Egorova) In my country, if you don't matter to the men in power, you do not matter.
EDGERTON: (As Nate Nash) Hey, I'd like to see you again.
LAWRENCE: (As Dominika Egorova) Why? Are we going to become friends?
EDGERTON: (As Nate Nash) Is that what you want?
LAWRENCE: (As Dominika Egorova) I don't have any.
EDGERTON: (As Nate Nash) There's a Russian restaurant right by the opera. Have dinner with me there.
LAWRENCE: (As Dominika Egorova) Tomorrow at 8.
EDGERTON: (As Nate Nash) OK.
EDELSTEIN: That's a fascinating scene. She's there incognito, but since he knows who her uncle is, he's been onto her from the get go, which means he knows she's a sparrow, and she knows he knows. But she goes on with the mission as if he doesn't, which means she could pretend to go over to his side to get the name of the mole, which means he might guess she's only pretending and play her, which means she might guess what he's doing and play him back. You see the problem here. Figuring out whether someone is a double or triple agent isn't a brainteaser. It's a brain irritant, especially when the script is so murky and convoluted. The novel by Jason Matthews is cleaner without so much jumping around. I don't know why there are so few sparks between Lawrence and Joel Edgerton. It feels as if scenes were cut, though I wouldn't want "Red Sparrow" to be any longer.
The movie has its good points. Lawrence's Russian accent is actually respectable. Matthias Schoenaerts makes the uncle, whose nickname is Vanya, unnervingly slippery. And as a Russian general, Jeremy Irons does his amusing impersonation of Boris Karloff after embalming. I liked the sly lesbian subtext Charlotte Rampling gives to Dominika's icy trainer. There's a graphically violent scene near the end that the director, Francis Lawrence, stages well. But the movie isn't involving, so you have nothing to do but grimace at one bad note after another and think the Russians could have devised a better plot. And maybe they have.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interview with psychologist and journalist Lauren Slater about drugs that treat depression and bipolar disorder and about research into the use of psychedelic drugs to treat certain problems related to anxiety, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of our interviews.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Theo Chaloner and Seth Kelly. Our engineer today is Adam Stanichevsky (ph). I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.