Tom Jolliffe on Scarlett Johansson…
I’m a fan of Scarlett Johansson. As an actress I think she’s interesting. She’s almost always engaging. She has a sultry old fashioned quality. Frankly she’s gorgeous, which whilst that shouldn’t be as important as it is in Hollywood (and it still is) that means she is a leading lady.
For most, the role which bought her to prominence was her breakout leading role in Lost In Translation. An interesting and subtle performance in a beautiful film. She’s been working solidly since her beginnings as a child actress but Lost In Translation launched her into adulthood and right into the Hollywood A-list. A string of diverse roles added to her CV and offered more glimpses into an undoubted talent to transfix an audience. We’re talking here about an actress with four golden globe nominations thus far and someone undoubtedly with the potential to be an Oscar-winning actress. Is this going to happen soon? Not with the direction that Scar-Jo’s career is currently heading.
Now this is not to say things aren’t going well. She’s a box office pull thanks to her role in the Marvel Universe as Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow). She’s fast becoming an in demand leading lady for blockbuster material, be it films like Lucy or the recent Ghost in a Shell remake. She’s good in the roles and she elevates the material given to her, and has managed to become something of a convincing action heroine but these roles aren’t going to attract the kind of award recognition she is capable of getting. She’s still found time to work with the Coen brothers (albeit in one of their weaker films, Hail, Caesar!), Spike Jonze (Her), Woody Allen (Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona) and on Jonathan Glazer’s dark science fiction horror/thriller, Under the Skin (a great film in which Scarlett is exceptional) but it seems increasingly like escapist Hollywood films are taking priority for her now. From continued Avenging to the film which triggered my need to write this article…
The film in question is Rough Night. The latest trailer debuted just over a week ago. There’s a recent trend in Hollywood. No matter how unsuited it may be, if something is good for the men, then surely the women should get in on the action. The Hangover came out, showing men acting like deranged adolescents. The film was one of those examples of something that worked within the context of its first film but ultimately had a detrimental effect on Hollywood comedies in the proceeding years. The sequels were bad enough but the constant imitators that followed were even worse (and they continue to follow. Just as they did with American Pie years previously). Then some bright spark decides that women want to and should aspire to show they can be just as moronic and crude as men. It was as if The Hangover, though funny, was somehow aspirational. Bridesmaids came out. It was quite good. It worked and it retained charm and managed to cast well. But that in itself sets a trend for further films. Somewhere down the line someone green-lights Rough Night, and decides Scarlett Johansson is the right person to headline. She in her wisdom decides it’s a role worth taking.
Frankly I can’t fathom the reasons why. It’s a concept on paper that just sounds monumentally unsuited for someone like her. Occasionally that can make for a surprisingly effective change of direction that will unexpectedly work. The poster sees Johansson looking sort of uncomfortable. Not merely because she’s playing a character who’s the straight one in the insane asylum but because she just seems totally out of place in the film that Rough Night promises to be. She looks embarrassed. Then you watch the trailer and the sentiment remains. She looks miss-cast (hideously) and embarrassed. The film itself looks grotesque. It’s tired, witless and lazy in every conceivable way. When a trailer can’t even be funny it doesn’t bode well for a film that for some reason wants to empower women by making them puerile, horrid and unlikeable in a film that looks like an inane melding of Hangover and Weekend at Bernies. I mean as far as trailers go in recent years, this one ranks high on the list for dreadful previews. The overwhelming feeling that came out of watching that trailer was that Johansson is just far, far too good to be doing something so terrible. The Avengers etc may not challenge her abilities to portray complex and interesting characters but they are still enjoyable films and she does her job well. It’s not fully utilising her potential by any means but at least they don’t waste her time completely.
Okay so maybe its a film where she can just let a different side out. An experiment. Something where she can turn up and have a laugh with her co-stars. I sort of get the appeal in these comedy films. Turn up, riff a bit. The set is fun. Anchorman must have been hilarious on set and the result turned out to reflect that. Surely though, when a film isn’t funny and no amount of desperately unimaginative fall backs (how many of these lady Hangovers have to have the wild “fat one?”) can make up for a lack of wit in the script, the cast must know they’re in a turkey. They just know. They’re not blind to it. Is that set still fun? I couldn’t say but it just seems clear the film is going to be mediocre at best, and for definite a sad waste of its talented lead.
This is a key age for Johansson now. Hollywood tends to see that 40 mark impose restrictions on its leading ladies. Maybe that’s the point she will focus more on character over mass markets but it can be a catch 22. The big films keep you relevant, and perhaps allow you those diversions into interesting independent cinema or challenging roles. After 40 these box office roles will likely dry up for her. It may also restrict the amount of engaging leading roles she receives. Hopefully not, and hopefully she maintains the sort of appeal that someone like Meryl Streep retains. How long do you gamble your time though? Not everyone gets the benefit of 30-40 years of major roles and awards relevance.
Avengers may have made Scar-Jo one of the highest paid actresses but there must come a point where her need for a challenge comes to the forefront. Under the Skin was a great film which offered a complex role. More of the same ilk would be good. Furthermore the studio dramas that are likely to attract Oscar attention may be worthwhile. She certainly can’t be short of offers. Whilst I enjoy seeing Johansson on mainstream blockbuster entertainment (as she elevates the roles) I feel she’s grinding to a creative halt and needs another change of direction. With her star at its apex, now is the time to be picky.