Tom Jolliffe takes a look at what might be the most awkward performance ever, Scarlett Johansson in Rough Night…
Cinema is full of great performances. Some actors become synonymous with certain characters, or genres and that synergy between part and person is perfect. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a perfect cyborg. Jack Nicholson is so perfectly Jack Torrance. De Niro so perfectly Travis Bickle.
It doesn’t always work out that way. You have plain bad performances. Maybe in theory something seems perfect but doesn’t work out so. Christopher Waltz as a Bond villain? That’s got excellence written all over it, right? Well, the reality wasn’t so excellent. Sometimes an actor is clearly approaching something for a quick paycheck or half-assed. Ask Bruce Willis about that. Or you can have plain old miscasting. Denise Richards as a Nuclear physicist? Oh boy.
However, what about times when a thespian who prides themselves on their ability to play any race, gender or indeed even play a tree places themselves in a film which just feels awkward. Like cringe-worthily awkward. Did you ever have that friend who made videos on a home camera? You know, they’d make you watch their home movies? Everyone on screen would kind of be into it, having fun and despite the lack of acting ability, kind of feel ‘natural.’ Then you’d have the sore thumb. Maybe a reluctant sibling, blackmailed into appearing, or perhaps initially excited before stepping in front of the camera and becoming, very suddenly, awkward as fu…yeah, you get what I mean.
Now, I should say right off the bat here. I like Scarlett Johansson a lot. She’s exceptional…when she’s in the right role, and she’s pushing herself. She’s always been decent. She’s kind of drifted into very mainstream material courtesy of becoming a Marvel mainstay. That saw her branch off into Lucy, into Ghost in the Shell (which began a seeming Scar-Jo backlash and began a running gag about any ethnic minority role going being offered out to her). A little unfairly, Scarlett became the poster girl for white-wash casting, further compounded by out of context quotes in an interview which suggested she wanted to play men, women, trees of every race, colour and creed.
Still… Johansson is thick skinned. As anyone who’s grown up in a cold business and been busy for over 20 years. A couple of years back she found herself cast in a kind of ‘anything guys can do, girls can do better’ haphazard attempt at comical diversity. If that rambunctious male-led, get fucked out your skull, rowdy comedy has been popular since the 80’s, the distinct lack of female entries evidently caused a need from a more diversely focused Hollywood to redress the balance. Honestly, I can’t see why you’d want to get ‘in’ on this particular sub-genre, particularly when the result ends up being decidedly unimaginative and witless, but there you go. ‘Yay, we can do mediocre party gone wrong comedies too!’
Insert a cast list of talented ladies, including genre specialists like Kate McKinnon and Jillian Bell. They end up being the most comfortable in the film, albeit coasting by on their specialised personae, not aided by much genuine comedy from the scriptwriters. Ultimately, in a film that melds aspects of The Hangover with Weekend At Bernies, it does little to convince any misogynist viewers that women can do comedy. If you watch Bridesmaids, they of course can. Poor films do little for many but particularly so for groups who are under-represented. The failure of a film such as this, thus becomes all about the fact that it’s a female cast (in the eyes of the studio) rather than the fact the material is outdated, witless and dull. Then, in the middle of all of this half-cocked drudgery we have poor Scarlett.
From the moment she appears in flashback as a High School senior at a last party before graduation, she’s totes awkward. She’s as awkward as a dad having to take his daughter to her ballet class to find he’s the only guy there and has to participate in a free form interpretive dance, when he was hoping to nip off to the sports bar down the road. She’s as uncomfortable as the meeting between execs and Kevin Spacey that saw him axed from All The Money In The World. Scarlett has done comedy before. She’s had a distinct and varied career, never particularly being type-cast, but bawdy comedy? This is seemingly her Kryptonite. Awkwardness levels off the chart (without it even feeling like a natural part of an ‘awkward’ character). She fights against awful dialogue, groanworthy gags and rote drama crammed in with all the skill of my toddler putting her snap cards back in the fucking box (he says, peering to his side and seeing a half shredded box with an explosion of cards surrounding it).
I wanted Black Widow to zipwire in through the window, slide across the floor, unleash a smoke grenade and swoop Scarlett’s ‘Jess’ out of the film altogether, before skilfully tossing Aubrey Plaza into the room in her place. I wanted to hold Scarlett delicately, let her rock back and forth on my couch whilst we watched Under The Skin or Lost in Translation together. I’d have been in trouble with my wife, sure, but I’d have done it. When Bob De Niro appeared in Dirty Grandpa, I shook my head dismissively at the fact he was far too good for this, but clearly wanted the paycheck. Yes he was awkward, but he knew better and didn’t care. There was a sense here, and this is inherent in awkward performances, where you feel like Scarlett thought this was going to work, but probably from a couple of weeks prior to shoot, to going into the first take, to the last, she just knew it wasn’t going to. ‘Maybe the edit will save me…’ It didn’t.
What is the most awkward performance you’ve ever seen? Let us know on Twitter @flickeringmyth or in the comments below.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has three features due out on DVD/VOD in 2019 and a number of shorts hitting festivals. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/