' ' Cinema Romantico: Lucy

Tuesday, July 29, 2014


At roughly the halfway point of “Lucy”, Scarlett Johansson's face appears on a flat screen TV and being that her titular character has by the mercurial stroke of fate gained superhuman intelligence on account of additional cerebral capacity – we can only use 10% of it but she’s able to employ a whole lot more – which is made possible by a precise movie-esque thingamajig, she recites a monotone spew of facts and information at such jaw-dropping speed with such little effort that she leaves the one person in the room stammering and stumbling for the words to respond. And what is crucial is the person playing that stammering, stumbling person – Morgan Freeman. He is perhaps our most eloquent actor, his distinct baritone routinely employed for cinematic voiceover to automatically lend authentic gravitas no matter the words. He's been the voice of God, after all, and yet in this moment, the man who gave God a voice can hardly find his own. Finally he locates a few words and says something of sustenance, but that takes longer than it's ever taken Mr. Freeman before. He may be playing a Professor of significant esteem but he is hapless and tongue-tied in the face of ScarJo, and in that moment he is essentially (not) speaking for all us flabbergasted organisms in the theater seats. 

Johansson starts dumb, dressed like a Jersey Girl living in Taipei and dating an even dumber dude (Pilou Asbæk) in a faux-Stetson who heedlessly chains a briefcase to her wrist and sends her into a high-rise to deliver it to a gangster named Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi). It seems death awaits but rather it’s servitude as a drug mule, whereby Mr. Jang removes a baggie of mysterious blue powder from inside the case and has it sewn into poor Lucy’s abdomen. The bag, however, breaks and leaks inside her, and soon she learns in one of the film's glorious bits of unabashed how-much-more-obvious-can-this-be exposition that the powder is CPH4, specifically a molecule carried by pregnant mothers when.....oh, who cares? It might as well be called the MacGuffin. Whether any of the film's “science” is credible is of no concern to me, and should be of no concern to you. Science belongs in this movie like ketchup belongs on a hot dog. CPH4 is the rocket fuel that provides Johansson liftoff into the cinematic stratosphere.

Once in the stratosphere, she wields epic brainpower and ass kicking survival skills like a Jason Bourne in Louboutin heels, if Jason Bourne could time travel and bend matter at will. Her main objective is to locate Samuel Norman (Freeman), the aforementioned Professor, not necessarily because his research can save her but because she wants to find someone to whom she can pass along this treasure trove of unexplainably radical knowledge. But the secondary objective is to survive the wrath of Mr. Jang because he wants his drugs back because this is a Luc Besson film and in every Luc Besson film there must be countless handguns outfitted with silencers. And there also must be the obligatory "slam-bang" sequence where an entire posse of bad dudes gather a plethora of automatic weapons and go after the heroine and discharge as many bullets as the budget ($40 million in this case) will allow. All these gun-firing, car-chasing, Scar-fu scenes, however, are essentially beneath Lucy, much like they would be beneath anyone possessing the power of telekinesis, but they are also beneath their leading lady, and that’s the whole damn point.

The film itself begins as dumb as the protagonist, contrasting images of a cheetah stalking its prey with Lucy herself being stalked. That would suggest its own capacity for intelligence intensifies along with the character, but all of Besson’s commentary on mankind’s aversion to growth and knowledge as well as stabs at “Tree of Life”-esque ruminations on existence come across blockheaded, less Plato’s Dialogues than a long form essay in Vanity Fair with lots of chic pictures. But then that’s all just window dressing for his central contention.

To call Ms. Johansson an actress in this context is simply not doing her justice. This is not suggest she isn't acting, which is ridiculous, because she understands that in this era of sensory cinematic overload it is smarter to downplay. Still, what she achieves here is something much more rarefied. “Lucy” opens with an image of a cell dividing into gigantic silvery, shimmery block lettering bearing our leading actress’s name. A Star Is Born, and she is a Movie Star whose charisma and presence render pyrotechnics and plot machinations pointless because the Movie Star is the main attraction. The thrill of the chase is simply to see Johansson in the midst of it, her persona coalescing with her characterization, and when she dispenses with a whole row of antagonists by lifting a finger it speaks directly to the spell a Movie Star can hold. Any time Jean Harlow appeared on screen in a movie the What, Where, When, Why and How all melted away because of the Who – that is to say, Her. And in "Lucy", Johansson, striding through the proceedings like an alien unfit for this asinine world, is truly Her. 

She is everything, and all the rest of Besson’s phantasm melts away.


Candice Frederick said...

Doesn't sound great based on your review. But I do love what Scarlet has been able to bring to these kind of not quite human roles.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I didn't care for the movie. I really just couldn't go along with how ridiculous it started to get (IMO). However, your review is beautifully written, and I think you make a good point - Scarlett is the "Her" in this movie (as well as in "Her," yes I took all subtlety out of saying that). I'm not sure if Lucy will actually boost her career or just establish what we all already know: she can be an action star. But can she show any depth? Or is a movie like Lucy, for lack of depth, unable to reflect that possibility?

Nick Prigge said...

Kristin: Personally I think she has, at times, shown depth. I think there was something beneath the surface in Lost in Translation and she even had something extra going on in Don Jon. I really feel, though, that she's mastered the art of just holding the center of the movie by not overdoing anything. There isn't an actress in recent memory that can do that as well as she can. Screen presence, like a true blue movie star.