The Scarlett Johansson Project — #7

I could not wait to get to this one. This is actually the one performance that made me officially choose Scarlett Johansson this year over my other choice.

Casting my mind all the way back to 2014, I remember walking out of the theater a total wreck. For anyone who has ever had an ex, it should leave a significant impact. This in my opinion is the pinnacle of romantic drama. I’m not saying this particular film is the one to beat all-time (although one could probably make that argument), but as someone who prefers emotional realism to the rom-com formula, it doesn’t get much more real than this unique look at the state of modern relationships. Plus the score provided by Arcade Fire is something else, too.

And while this is a post dedicated to Scarlett Johansson, I am compelled to give a shout out to her actually-on-screen co-star. The notoriously strange Joaquin Phoenix is absolutely tremendous here, putting in a sensitive and melancholic performance that proves why he is among the more interesting actors working right now.

Scarlett Johansson as Samantha in Spike Jonze’s Her 

Role Type: Supporting*

Premise: In a near future, a lonely writer develops an unlikely relationship with an operating system designed to meet his every need. (IMDb)

Character Background: In a not-so-distant future humans are more socially distant than they are in a real-world global pandemic. There are no six-feet-apart policies at play but instead everyone is attached to their computers — quite literally — as they walk around in their own private one-person bubble. Everything is in reach and yet everyone is inaccessible. Spike Jonze’s smart directing and incredible — indeed, Oscar-winning — writing makes it feel entirely plausible this is the natural course the river of human interaction will take with the advent of hyper-intelligent A.I. In Her, it comes in the form of the OS1, a virtual companion tailored to our unique personalities and that has its own consciousness. (Yeah, in your non-face Siri!) This new tech is designed to keep us on schedule, keep us motivated and focused, and most significantly, keep us company.

An emotionally distraught writer named Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix, decides to invest in one. He prefers his OS to have a female voice. Upon boot-up, and after quickly thumbing through a book on baby names (some 180,000 options in a literal split-second), his new friend christens herself Samantha. As the ice is quickly broken, Theodore becomes fascinated by Samantha’s ability to grow and learn. Before long, he’s starting to feel something more than pure admiration for the tech. A friendship evolves into romance and soon Samantha finds her bodiless self experiencing things she never knew she could and as well developing into something far more than anyone could have expected.

What she brings to the movie: a disembodied voice. That is literally it, at least in terms of the tools she has at her disposal to create the character. What she brings to the movie emotionally is truly profound. Jodi Benson had the hovering Weebo. Rose Byrne had an eerie resemblance to HAL-9000 as ‘Mother.’ Now, “Sexiest Woman Alive” Scarlett Johansson has no body as Samantha, a stunningly complex realization of a Somebody who is seeking connection and purpose and wholeness of feeling. It is a deeply affecting performance that encompasses the full spectrum of emotions and that becomes all the more impressive considering it required Johansson to be isolated in a sound booth. She and Phoenix never crossed paths on set.

Johansson’s distinctively husky timbre here becomes an aloe for an aching, bruised soul. Yet it isn’t just the physical qualities of her iconic voice that makes this one of the all-time greatest disembodied performances. The chemistry she shares with her co-star is utterly beguiling and convincing; the ubiquitousness of her presence both strange and comforting. Though in reality she’s a device often tucked into his shirt pocket, she feels like a real person sitting right in the room with Theodore, arms around him, chin on his shoulder.

In her own words: “Samantha makes [Theodore] realize that he can love again. I can’t imagine that I’ve ever had that relationship with my Blackberry. I guess the only thing that has changed my life, or had a positive effect on my life, is Skype or Facetime. Any of those video chats that you can do with your family or your partner or your friend are so life-changing when you are away from home for months and months shooting. It makes all the difference in the world to be able to see somebody.”

Key Scene: From the moment Samantha greets Theodore, with the most bubbly of “Hello’s”, Johannson has us in the palm of her hands.

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 

* A fun bit of trivia that I did not know when I first saw the movie back in 2014: Johansson was not the original voice for the part of Samantha. She in fact joined the cast in post-production, replacing Samantha Morton after Jonze decided the part needed something more. With Morton’s blessing, Johansson stepped in and the rest was serious tear-jerking history.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: IMDb; interview excerpt courtesy of Julie Miller/Vanity Fair

 

17 thoughts on “The Scarlett Johansson Project — #7

    • It might well be mine too. He’s absolutely amazing in this role. For every moment Scarlett Johansson makes more impactful, Phoenix is right there too. It’s such a well-acted movie that I actually don’t mind the emotional trauma of sitting through it again and again! Haha!

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  1. PS – I finally made my first post in 3 months or something absurd like that. 😀
    I have a ton of drafts too, but I have decided they all need polishing. I need to learn when to stop editing, all I’m doing is moving the same words around!!

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  2. Reading this I realise I have only watched Her twice. It is one of the goddamned best films ever made, it explores territory no other film has that I know of when it comes to the emotional component.

    Emotion and technology. They don’t sound like they are from the same world, but in this world they intertwine.

    Phoenix is indeed amazing with that dorky facial hair.. plus that tripped out concept of a job where you write letters for people. It kinda relates to Scarlett and Phoenix in a way, both their… relationship I guess, and his weird job, both have this barrier between him and emotion yknow. The letters aren’t really his, and while their connection is intense, there is still that physical barrier.

    Perhaps I’m just talking out of my arse. This is a good pick, her voice-acting is amazing in this one. I’d make it my 2nd fave movie with her in it, the 1st is Under The Skin. I’ll have to go back on your site cois I can’t remember her being in anything good for years. What have I missed?? The last I remember was her small bit in Hail Caesar!

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    • Yeah, when it comes to examining emotions, it doesn’t get much more real than this movie. I am with you all the way on that. There’s something profound about the connection he makes with the A.I. Scarlett Johansson makes the part so alive you move so quickly past the weirdness of the fact and start to embrace the relationship as one you want to see succeed. Her is a unique achievement for sure.

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      • indeed, indeed

        I just saw a film at the film fest called Jumbo, based on a real story where apparently some chick fell in love with a fairground ride. Nowhere near as meticulous as Her but still a recommended watch! I’ll be posting it soon.

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        • Yeah man I read a review on Assholes Watching Movies about that thing, Jumbo. Sounds super weird and out there. Really looking forward to your review!

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    • Ah, very good! Glad I could help! Lol. It’s a tremendous role for her. You usually think of “great voice casting” when it comes to animated movies, but it applies here too!

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        • You know, if I ever had gotten my stuff together here it would’ve been really fun to go through her entire filmography. But I suppose that could be chsllenging too as not all titles are available and I’m really quite bummed Black Widow has been delayed so I won’t get to highlight that role for her. So many things to choose, yikes!

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  3. I will also throw out another observation about Ms. Johansson and her voice. It is a perfect voice for this role. Her voice has both deep and high notes. It is not a stereotypical sounding voice for women in movie and especially for computers. I’m not saying this well enough, but had she had a different voice it would not have worked as well. Her voice is perfect. And she can act.

    Oh well done Scarlett.

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    • Her voice really is perfect for this role. Glad to meet another fan! She’s so much more than the sex symbol magazines keep pigeonholing her into. Although I think at this point it’s widely accepted she is a bonafide movie star more than the sex symbol she was earlier in her career.

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  4. Thank you so much for honoring Scarlett Johansson. She has always been a powerful actor. Like other gorgeous actors, she is relegated to “sex symbol” and her abilities are ignored. I love her. She is a muse for me. Thank you so much for honoring her.

    I am SOOOOOO looking forward to Black Widow.

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