Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Scarlett Johansson can't relate to human beings

I'm sure I'm not the first person to have written a story along these lines ... but I didn't steal the idea from anyone else either.

The idea being that Scarlett Johansson has become typecast as an alien.

Oh, not always a literal alien, but sometimes that too (Under the Skin). In her other two most recent roles -- if you ignore Captain America: The Winter Soldier, that is -- she plays someone (or something) alienated from humanity. (If I am not counting Captain America, I'm definitely not counting her bit part in Chef.)

Having finally caught up with Lucy on Sunday night, I see with clarity the nature of her recent trajectory as an actress. There's a line of dialogue in the movie about how the title character -- having overdosed on a new synthetic drug surgically implanted in her stomach, mule-style, which ruptures through its protective bag after a few swift kicks to the gut -- can no longer empathize with human beings. This is what happens, quite logically, when you are using in excess of 40% of your brain's capacity. (And counting.)

In Her, as a self-aware operating system, she's also involved in an evolution of her being that eventually leaves little old human being Theodore Twombley no real competition for her attentions. Not when there are thousands of other self-aware operating systems with whom she can commune, at a pace Theodore can't manage.

This observation is rather obvious, so let's take it to a place that's not so obvious: In a way, she is having the career that Angelina Jolie should be having.

I don't mean that Jolie deserves Johansson's career. I mean that it would be a much more symbolic career for her than it is for Johansson.

See, Jolie -- as a person, not an actress -- truly has evolved to the point where she seems like an alien. One might argue that this is the logical endpoint for any celebrity who is so unfathomably beautiful that she has entirely lost touch with the quotidian. She has been pedestalized within an inch of her own humanity. This bleeds over into her abilities as an actress, which are not insignificant. The upshot is that I can no longer believe her in any role she plays.

The same threat exists for ScarJo, as she is as worshipped by men as Jolie at her height, if not more so. Except Johansson is "keeping it real." She still seems like a regular person, almost consciously lampooning her own potential disconnect from the human race -- which is precisely the evidence that she remains a grounded human being.

Jolie could not do this. She labors under the misapprehension that she is still a "regular person," when indeed she is not. The role of Maleficent in this summer's eponymous movie is about as close as she has come to admitting there is something otherworldly about her. However, crucially, the movie that bears her character's name is so entirely fixated on humanizing the character, that instead of seeming like a knowing nod to her own public persona, it reveals the depth of her own failure to understand herself.

Johansson, on the other hand, has been actively inviting these roles of "other," these roles where she is so alienated from her origins that she is either robotic, or actually a robot. But, it's not fooling us. In each of the three films we're mentioning here, Johansson's characters' removal from the flesh is offset by at least one scene where we feel her humanity in excessive quantities. In Lucy, it's the opening, where she makes her fear of being killed by Chinese gangsters a physical force. I don't know that I've seen someone as afraid in a movie in 2014 as Johansson in the opening scenes of Lucy. In Under the Skin, it's an almost unbearable confusion and sadness when she starts to empathize with these humans she's come to dispassionately study. There's a fragility there that is also unequaled in 2014 films. And then of course Her, where Johansson actually won an award at the Venice Film Festival for breathing unmistakable life into artificial intelligence -- and just doing it with her voice.

I've already spent some time praising Johansson this year (see here), and at this point you may think I'm in danger of crossing over into idolatry of a woman who has never been praised for her actual talent until just the past year or two. But it's warranted. And that's the beauty of a blog -- when you've got something to say, just say it.

As for Angelina Jolie, well ... let's see if making a movie about an Olympic athlete who survives a World War II plane crash and Japanese POW camps can give us a glimpse of her elusive cinematic humanity.

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