[30 March 2009]
It’s easy to forget that Scarlett Johansson is only 24. Since she became one of Hollywood’s most visible actresses under 30 with 2003’s Lost in Translation, she’s popped up in a handful of movies each year, becoming a bankable prospect in dreck like The Nanny Diaries and He’s Just Not That Into You, and cementing herself as Woody Allen’s latest muse in films like Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Match Point.
But has Johansson even had a “defining” role that puts her in upper echelon of actresses, pressing shoulders with Meryl Streep and Katherine Hepburn? Undoubtedly she has not, she’s only 24, and has only had a lead role in fewer than 20 pictures.
This new DVD set, Scarlett Johansson Collection is apparently hedging its bets on Johansson not making much of a mark on cinema after 2006, since the collection gathers three of her earlier films with their paltry extras (An American Rhapsody, Girl with a Pearl Earring, and A Good Woman) and presents the collection as Johansson’s defining roles. That the movies aren’t even close to that, and are actually some of the worst movies in Johansson’s filmography (Home Alone 3 obviously excluded) only adds insult to that assertion.
Along with her role opposite Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, Girl with a Pearl Earring represents Johansson’s breakthrough. In the film, Johansson plays Griet, the titular subject of Vermeer’s famous painting. Johansson proved she could do time pieces here, playing the servant Griet with a mixed sense of shame for her station in life and resilience.
It’s not her fault that the film hinges itself on a concept that is cool on paper (“Hey, what if we did an entire movie based around a novel that is about a girl that was the subject for a painting?”) that is relatively rote on screen. Art is better as an amorphous concept, as discovering Vermeer’s fictionalized lust for his maid doesn’t make understanding that painting any easier—instead, it plays like imagining yourself in a romance novel cover or painting’s version of fan fiction. And Colin Firth’s limp portrayal of Vermeer as a petulant, whiny artiste doesn’t help much, either.
Johansson’s role in the roundly mediocre An American Rhapsody is that of a 15-year-old version of a character most entertainingly played by a different actress as a six-year-old. The film was a labor of love and partially autobiography of director Eva Gardos, who escaped Hungary behind the Iron Curtain in the middle of the 20th Century.
Johansson plays the 15-year-old version of Suzanne, a girl that escaped Hungary, and to go back to her native country because she is rebelling against her new life and family in America. Johansson is a bit too whiny instead of the disaffected and rebellious attitude Gardos needed Johansson to be, but Johansson is more of a bit player here anyway—her name isn’t even in the top billing, and was likely changed in order to capitalize on the fame Johansson achieved two years after it came out.
The inclusion of A Good Woman in the collection makes clear that the point here isn’t gathering Johansson’s best pictures and putting them together for the cheap—it’s gathering the cheapest movies from Johansson’s career and putting them together in a collection on the cheap, since, along with The Black Dahlia, it is one of the worst movies of Johansson’s adult acting career. The film takes it’s plot from Lady Wyndmere’s Fan, a play written in 1892 by the rising Oscar Wilde, and updates it to 1930s Italy, because, you know, Italy looks cool on screen, and doing a film set 38 years earlier would be like, super hard.
Throughout the film, Johansson is overshadowed by British actors Tom Wilkinson and Stephen Campbell Moore, who actually sound like they mean and understand the aphorisms they’re asked to say in every scene. But Johansson’s atonality in playing the wife of an American businessman is overshadowed by the disastrous miscasting of Helen Hunt as a femme fatale who supposedly wrecks marriages (including, potentially Johansson’s) and is the object of lust for all men on the Italian coast. Hunt is a lot of things, but Femme Fatale is not one of them—she looks so resolutely uncomfortable that you begin to wonder if she fired her agent after filming wrapped.
The films here are disastrously misrepresentative of Johansson’s best, or even her defining roles. First off, the fact that Lost in Translation isn’t here is a crime. And the lack of any of her Woody Allen vehicles is nearly as egregious (I’d vote for last year’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona). Even The Island would have made more sense here, because it was the first time Johansson had to play a role in an action/sci-fi movie, and she was often the only thing that was worth watching in that train wreck.
Instead, with Scarlett Johansson Collection, we get a pair of okay movies, one with a decent performance from Johansson the other with a minuscule one, and one really awful movie with a bad performance from her. If the point of the DVD was to start a new reissue trend that milks money out of loyal fans’ pockets like those we’ve seen in the music sphere since the 1980s, then consider Scarlett Johansson Collection a resounding success.