Penultimate "Hunger Games" Shorts Moviegoers

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1” (or “The Hunger Games: The One Where Nothing Much Happens”) sees Suzanne Collins’ final Hunger Games book sliced in half over “creative concerns” (read: double the box office receipts). As such, it’s the creatively suspect penultimate series entry to end all creatively suspect penultimate series entries – if only! – certain to excite fans and bore outsiders all at once. Cast and crew have finally, loudly perfected the monotonous click-clack of exposition and perfunctory action, only to be out-volumed by a star who’s become bigger than the series that made her one.

Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence’s celebrity isn’t the only thing that sinks “Mockingjay – Part 1,” but it’s the biggest. In her third go-round as Katniss Everdeen, teenage heroine in the increasingly dystopian Panem, Lawrence turns her acting knob up to its highest setting yet, as if to remind us how big of a deal she is. Throughout the character’s many crying fits and adventures in observing – so much observing – we’re left to stare down a famous person who’s been all but inescapable in recent years. The result is an emotionally volatile but surprisingly passive lead inhabited by a superstar whose cultural ubiquity has bordered on exhausting. Sound like fun yet?

The actress has done good work (the first two “Hunger Games” films) and great work (“Silver Linings Playbook”), making her turn here all the more deflating. Throw in some time-tested acting talents – Julianne Moore, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson – to get lost in the shuffle, to waste away as thankless deliverers of exposition, and director Francis Lawrence has his hands caught in quite a mess. Moreover, the screenplay – adapted by Danny Strong and Peter Craig – introduces more characters to an already overstuffed cast while juggling stakes that are bigger than ever but far less immediate.

The eponymous Hunger Games are over. As a former victor, Katniss has been selected to lead the resistance against the totalitarian President Snow (Donald Sutherland), but only as a symbol. A figurehead. That’s right, the leaders of the resistance have handpicked their best, fiercest warrior to spend her days shooting TV spots. The pic’s not-as-clever-as-it-thinks take on the role of media and the duality of propaganda isn’t unwelcome, but it was done much more effectively in Marvel’s “Captain America: The First Avenger.” If nothing else, these scenes give Hoffman room to play, allowing for some of the film’s only intentional laughs.

Suzanne Collins deserves credit for pivoting away from literal warfare to a war of information, but it makes for less than compelling viewing – especially puzzling in an action series aimed at teens. Each frame and each scrap of dialogue feels entirely dutiful, aiming for social commentary so vague that it couldn’t possibly offend anyone while parceling out token bits of story for each character. Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket gets the shortest shrift, finally escaping the glitz and pomp of the previous films, only to disappear from the story as soon as she enters. Harrelson’s screen time is similarly shorn down.

When Hoffman’s character speaks of “manufacturing spontaneity” as the key to swaying public opinion, it’s the closest that “Mockingjay – Part 1” comes to introspection, to saying anything semi-interesting. But the thought quickly floats away and we’re back to Katniss fretting about her captured, apparently brainwashed love interest, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). In fact, when Katniss first sees Peeta being interviewed on TV, confirming that he’s still alive, she helpfully exclaims, “You’re alive!” Asinine dialogue abounds.

None of this weak-kneed storytelling should surprise anyone. The film is money in the bank. Fans will love it for whatever attachment they already have to the material and casual moviegoers will go because of the excitement of those same fans. But the movie is half a story stretched far too thin with a cast that has neither reason nor opportunity to stretch themselves. “Mockingjay – Part 1” is the epitome of commercial filmmaking – a movie that checks the most ordinary of boxes, doing absolutely nothing to enrich or expand the lives of those watching it. Consider any enjoyment by fans a pre-existing condition.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release date: November 21, 2014
Studio: Lionsgate
Director: Francis Lawrence
Screenwriters: Danny Strong, Peter Craig
Starring: Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, Jeffrey Wright, Josh Hutcherson, Jena Malone, Julianne Moore, Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jennifer Lawrence, Sam Claflin, Liam Hemsworth
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images and thematic material)