Scarlett Johansson is a brilliant actress. Scarlett Johansson is a beautiful woman. Scarlett Johansson gives a fantastic voice performance in Her as the operating system Samantha. In spite of this, Scarlett Johansson is Her’s biggest problem.
Over the past 15 years or so, Johansson has become one of Hollywood’s most recognisable actresses, carving out a career in art-house cinema (Lost in Translation, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie) and studio blockbusters (The Island, The Avengers) alike. She also models on a regular basis and billboards adorning her face are a frequent occurrence on bus stops all over the world.
She also has a fantastic, distinctive voice (as long as she doesn’t do a New Jersey accent, see Don Jon) to go along with her physical beauty. Deep and husky, her vocal chords produce some of the most pleasant and sexy noises imaginable to many.
The problem with casting Johansson in Her is that she is simply too much of a presence in the film. The most important aspect of Samantha’s character is that she doesn’t have a body; she only exists as a voice in Theodore’s head (played by Joaquin Phoenix’s head). As he starts falling in love with her, he has no visual reference points whatsoever. This is a crucial source of tension in the relationship and one of the most interesting questions explored by Spike Jonze.
As an audience member, we are unfortunately not in the same position as Theodore. As Ian Nathan puts it in Empire review: “you can’t help but picture her [Johansson] floating in cyberspace.” While imagining Scarlett Johansson is a pleasant activity in itself, it denies the audience the chance to go through the same imagination procedure as Theodore. We are spoon-fed a pre-existing image of the perfect woman, instead of inspired to use our own imagination. This is particularly the case in the film’s more intimate moments.
Interestingly, the lesser-known (but equally brilliant) actress Samantha Morton was initially cast in the role. During shooting, she was present on set, interacting with Phoenix only to be replaced during the editing process. While there might be a legitimate reason for the change, I would be interested in seeing the Samantha Morton version. The casting of Scarlett Johansson is a strange decision which undermines the purpose of the film.