When requesting a three-way with Scarlett Johansson, this isn't what Judge Kerry Birmingham had in mind.
Three films starring Mrs. Ryan Reynolds.
Given the ardor she seems to inspire in a lot of her fans, there's probably a suggestive joke to be made about the curvaceous Scarlett Johansson's "body of work." But in the strictly filmographical sense, the twenty-something actress's body of work is fairly impressive, from early teen roles in The Horse Whisperer to indie favorites like Ghost World to more recent films like, um, The Spirit.
Okay, they can't all be winners, but the good-to-bad ratio in a career that's still unfurling is a pretty strong indicator that, regardless of an individual analysis of her talent, she's picked a lot of diverse, risky, and often outright strange material. The same rules apply to multi-film collections as well, subject to the whims of catalogue availability and hoping the unifying element is enough to gloss over the dross that inevitably taints these anthology releases. The Scarlett Johansson Collection pulls together three period dramas starring Johansson. Cross your fingers that the good-to-bad ratio works out okay on this one.
Facts of the Case
In 2001's An American Rhapsody, Johansson plays Suzanne, the daughter of expatriate Hungarians (Tony Goldwyn, A Walk on the Moon, and Nastassja Kinski, Cat People) growing up in suburban Los Angeles in the 1950s. Separated from her family as an infant as they flee the era's harsh political regime, Suzanne finds life in a country and family she never knew to be a far cry from her childhood in the idyllic Hungarian countryside.
2003's Girl with a Pearl Earring stars Johansson as Griet, a teenage maid in the household of Johannes Vermeer, the famed Dutch painter known for the meticulousness of his work and his fondness for the servant girls he uses as the models for his paintings. As Griet's infatuation with the artist deepens, the two mutually inspire each other and lead to the creation of the famous painting of the title.
A Good Woman, from 2004, features Johansson as Meg, a newlywed vacationing in Italy with her husband and his wealthy European peers. Believing their marriage unshakeable, Meg's world is turned upside down by the arrival of Mrs. Erlynne (Helen Hunt, As Good As It Gets), a notorious gold-digger with her sights set on Meg's husband (Mark Umbers, Cassandra's Dream).
It's not that there's nothing of value in these multi-film collections. They tend to sell themselves as quintessential when they're often little but back-catalogue cleaning and studio opportunism, a career's worth of ephemera—in this case, Johansson's—trotted out for completists, fans, and movie lovers looking for a value. You never quite know what you're going to get, however, and the most consistent performer is bound to have a few stinkers: The Pink Panther has Son of…, and Bruce Lee's brief oeuvre is marred by Game of Death II (and, really, a significant portion of Game of Death). It leads to a strange Rule of DVD Boxed Sets: There's Usually A Bad One. The sampling of Johansson's work features nothing outright awful, but all three films tread a sort of dramatic-indie middle ground that offers nothing terrible, but nothing particularly inspiring either.
The strongest of the three is coincidentally the most well-known, the art-house art drama Girl with a Pearl Earring. Based in Tracy Chevalier's novel of historical fiction, director Peter Webber (Hannibal Rising) scores perfect casting equilibrium with eternally likeable Colin Firth (Bridget Jones's Diary) as Vermeer, whose mere presence makes the artist sympathetic instead of lecherous and temperamental, and Johansson as Griet, all restraint and sleepy-eyed longing. It's a choice that plays to both actors' natural strengths and prevents what could have been a bodice-ripping soap opera, art porn for the cognoscenti (thankfully, Vermeer never cries, "I must paint you!," even though his maid looks exactly like Scarlett Johansson). Instead, the drama plays out largely in what's unsaid: scandals alluded to, feelings allowed to surface, then submerge. Chevalier reportedly eschewed any involvement with the film, and what was probably just a paycheck turned into a solid creative decision. Steeped in period detail and oozing with the sort of tense desire characteristic of repressed societies and movies based therein, Girl with a Pearl Earring is the most virtuosic movie of the collection and also the one here that might make Johansson's retrospective one day.
This version of Girl with a Pearl Earring is literally the same disc as the single-disc release, with the Sundance Channel's "Anatomy of a Scene" special the only appreciable extra. Admirers of the film will have to continue to wait for an extra-laden release.
Jumping ahead in history, A Good Woman is based on Oscar Wilde's play, Lady Windermere's Fan, relocated to a lush Italian vacation island in the 1930s, where wealthy Englishmen congregate to enjoy the pleasures of the wealthy and ride out the bad times in Europe. Into this fray comes Johansson's Meg and her husband, Robert, an American couple who find themselves the subject of all the local gossip, especially when Helen Hunt's notorious "other woman," Mrs. Erlynne, sets her sights on Robert. The setting is different, but all the Wildean tropes are there, from the critique of the leisurely excesses of the ruling class to the bon mots for which he was legendary: Stephen Campbell Moore's (Bright Young Things) lusty Lord Darlington, damning Robert for the lack of attention he's given Meg, utters the famous quotation, "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars."
The movie piles on the Wilde-isms on love, women (ahem), and marriage by the spadeful, and steals choice lines from George Bernard Shaw, among others, as well. This amused-half-smirk approach is what Wilde excelled at and what the film aims to attain, a mirthful c'est-la-vie view of modern love and marriage that's reflected in every pithy exchange and misunderstood exits and entrances. It's a comedy of manners that celebrates the bored indulgences of the rich while simultaneously condemning its odious self-absorption. Everyone's having an affair, and those that aren't are gossiping about the ones that are.
It's a rare tone and one that the movie only infrequently achieves. The change of locale adds some color, production value, and European whimsy to the sitcom-ish proceedings, but there's little to animate the script beyond some clever wordplay and the game nature of the actors. Johansson shakes off her usual languorous demeanor and plays Meg's nervousness and naïveté, a trait Woody Allen would exploit more effectively in movies like Scoop. The movie's other blonde doesn't fare as well, as Hunt, aging more than she or Paul Reiser would probably like, fails to convince as a serial mistress in a performance far from her peak in As Good As It Gets. A cast stocked with English character heavyweights is highlighted by Tom Wilkinson (In the Bedroom; he shows up in Girl with a Pearl Earring as well). Wilkinson plays a lonely aristocrat with designs on the notoriously slippery Mrs. Erlynne, and his optimism and open-mindedness in the face gossip and judgment cuts through the film's glib cynicism.
By no means a bad film, A Good Woman is diverting enough, but hampered by a script that telegraphs its twists and direction with not quite enough finesse to cover the seams. A commentary with director Mike Barker and producer Alan Greenspan (no, not that one) is the sole extra.
An American Rhapsody is the last stop on Johansson's history tour, and she plays a Hungarian immigrant reunited with her birth family in America after being raised from infancy in rural Hungary. The film is somewhat dubiously included in this collection: Johansson shows up as her character, Suzanne, halfway through the movie after being played by child actors. It's also the actress's most uneven performance of the three movies. Attempting teenage disaffection (hey, it worked in Ghost World), Johansson's Suzanne embodies the actress at her laziest: monotone, dull-eyed, bristling with apathy. Johansson's an actress that has always benefited from a strong director willing to draw an effective performance out of her, but writer-director Eva Gardos, drawing on her family's true-life experiences escaping post-World War II Hungary, doesn't seem to have the confidence behind the camera to capture that performance. Produced by character actress Colleen Camp (Clue), whom Gardos met while working together on Apocalypse Now (Gardos was in casting), it's easy to see what Camp saw in Gardos's story: reminiscent of other tales of political exodus but from an unusual point of view, Gardos's life experiences are remarkable and certainly worth repeating. Highlighting the everyday adjustments that someone in "Suzanne's" position would have to make being a stranger in a strange land is a welcome change from the hand-wringing melodrama that marks these kinds of stories.
That said, An American Rhapsody is a film hampered by its limitations. Though an experienced editor, Gardos would have benefited from a tighter script and a surer hand behind the camera. If this contradicts my praise of Gardos's unusual story, then my feelings are much like the movie itself: internally at odds, and never quite where it needs to be. The whole thing has a scattershot, collected-from-memory vibe that's episodic and, at times, stilted because of it. There's little tension, and little connection, to be found, even when Suzanne's parents and older sister are on the run from Hungary's military police. It's a movie about struggle and acceptance, but the plight of Suzanne and her parents, played with surprising gravity by Goldwyn and Kinski, always has a strangely muted quality that a more confident director may have been able to overcome.
Gardos and Camp provide a convivial commentary that separates fact from fiction on the disc's only extra.
As films unto themselves, the three movies collected here can broadly be termed "historical dramas." But their quality varies so wildly from film to film and taste to taste that to dismiss them as filler is just as egregious as ignoring their dramatic shortcomings. These are good, if mostly unremarkable, films. As an ostensible showcase for Johansson, only Girl with a Pearl Earring is likely to make Johansson's greatest hits reel; the others are for diehard fans or those interested in the individual movies' subject matter. They're fine for fans of immigrant dramas or English period comedies, but those looking for a taste of Scarlett are better off cherry-picking their favorites from Johansson's still growing filmography.
Not guilty, but only just.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice, An American Rhapsody
Perp Profile, An American Rhapsody
Distinguishing Marks, An American Rhapsody
Scales of Justice, Girl With A Pearl Earring
Perp Profile, Girl With A Pearl Earring
Distinguishing Marks, Girl With A Pearl Earring
Scales of Justice, A Good Woman
Perp Profile, A Good Woman
Distinguishing Marks, A Good Woman
Review content copyright © 2009 Kerry Birmingham; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.