Play time for The Hunger Games 

Jennifer Lawrence shines in the big-screen adaptation of Suzanne Collins' novel.

A few months ago I was blissfully unaware of The Hunger Games, the first in a series of young adult novels by Suzanne Collins about a dystopian future society where children fight to the death in an annual sporting event/national holiday. But then the Hollywood marketing machine kicked in, bringing with it umpteen breathless Entertainment Weekly covers, and I was hooked. The cast? Full of A-listers. The director? Gary Ross (Pleasantville, writer of yesteryear hits Big and Dave), a seemingly great choice. Hey, I thought, if May’s warmer temps could arrive in March for much of the country, why not the blockbuster movie season?

Unfortunately, my expectations got away from me. The Hunger Games rises above the level of, say, Twilight, to which it is often compared, but it still struggles to transcend its teen-lit origins. Credit a lack of depth in its characters, and a plot that runs full steam ahead while leaving meaning, feeling and logic in its wake. I haven’t read Collins’ novel, so I don’t know for sure, but Games feels like a case of too much book crammed into too little movie.

Jennifer Lawrence is the real deal, however. The actress towers over her co-stars as Katniss Everdeen (Games continues the proud sci-fi tradition of using ridiculous character names), a girl from the poorest district of an authoritarian future-America who volunteers to participate in the games in place of her younger sister. Lawrence is on screen for basically all of Games’ lengthy but brisk two hours and 20 minutes, and she captures all of Katniss’ fierce strength and intelligence, while somehow managing to look fetching while bleeding and sitting in a tree. Lawrence is a transfixing presence, and watching Games is to witness a major star being born. (If you saw her in Winter’s Bone or last year’s X-Men: First Class, consider yourself ahead of the curve.)

The rest of the cast is also first rate, with standout turns from Woody Harrelson as Katniss’ booze-dripping mentor Haymitch Abernathy, Josh Hutcherson (The Kids Are All Right) as her games competitor/love interest Peeta Mellark, and Lenny Kravitz as the stylist Cinna. I also dug Stanley Tucci as the TV host of the games and Donald Sutherland as the obviously rotten-to-the-core President Snow. From what I hear, they will all have a lot more to do in the sequel.

And therein lies the rub. Once the battle to the death begins — with a violent yet still PG-13-appropriate bloodbath — Games tries to cram in too much (no doubt an attempt to satisfy existing fans) and winds up muddled. Characters become disposable, set pieces exist as excuses for explosions or to show off some CGI before moving on to the next scene. The more I thought about the game afterward, the less its internal logic held up. This is a problem.

I doubt the under-21 audience is going to care much about these nitpicks, however, and I expect Games to set box office records this weekend. There’s something indelibly of the moment about a movie set in a world where your only hope of a future involves besting 23 strangers for a single spot amongst the hoi polloi. Hollywood calls it The Hunger Games. The kids call it “looking for a job.”

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