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Two of the Year's Best Acting Performances Were For Characters I Loathed, and Only One Was a Slave Owner

By Dustin Rowles | Think Pieces | January 14, 2014 | Comments ()


her-joaquin-phoenix-2.jpg

While I thought that Matthew McConaughey’s (mostly unrecognized) performance in Mud was the best of the year, and Brie Larson’s in Short Term 12 the most naturalistic, two amazing, indelible performances in 2013 also stuck out for me because I intensely disliked them.

The first would seem obvious: Michael Fassbender’s performance as racist, alcoholic, torturing slave-owner Edwin Epps in 12 Years a Slave has completely ruined Fassbender for me. It is incredibly unfair to the actor that I can’t see Fassbender — even in happy, dance mode — anymore without wincing, but that character was so ugly and soulless that it broke off a piece of my own soul, which is now being held captive in the steely blue gaze of Fassbender’s dead eyes. If TMZ were to report that Fassbender is secretly a serial-killing psychopath who just murdered his girlfriend, after that performance — which felt so searing, so raw and so real — I wouldn’t doubt it for a second. No one should be so good at playing a vile, repugnant stain in American history, and the fact that Edwin Epps was actually worse than depicted by Fassbender really does make me want to beleive in God, because if Heaven exists, then so does Hell, and little would give me more satisfaction than knowing that the real-life Edwin Epps is burning for all eternity.

The other performance is perhaps less obvious, and that was Joaquin Phoenix’s transformative performance as Theodore Twombly in Spike Jonze’s Her. I liked Her. I thought the sultry disembodied voice of Scarlett Johansson was award-worthy; I thought Spike Jonze’s vision of the future was apt, clever, and smart; the cinematography was gorgeously spare; and the premise was neat, although it felt like another iteration of Ruby Sparks or Lars and the Real Girl, yet another movie that examines our displaced romantic affections.

But I did not like Theodore Twombly, and because of that, I could never really get into Her. He was the mopey inverse of the manic pixie dream girl, and to be honest, the kind of overly sensitive male character that makes my teeth grind. This is not an indictment of Phoenix’s performance — which was so superb — but of the character that he and Jonze chose to create: A weak, soft-spoken romantic flibberty fizz. A fleeting romantic thought given a body and a bad moustache and the voice of a sweet nothing. His manner of speaking was only slightly removed from the baby talk you will sometimes hear a guy deliver to a new girlfriend on the phone, and maybe that was the point, but it doesn’t change the fact that that guy is spectacularly annoying, and that in real life, the woman with whom he’s speaking baby-talk is probably going to dump him as soon as the crystallization phase of their relationship wears off and she realizes that he’s a weak-willed, sullen guy whose constant introspection is wearisome.

He felt like he was conceived as a kind of idealized version of men in the future who have given up on any notion of masculinity, because in our future, traditional gender roles have been abandoned (which is not a bad thing), but instead of meeting in the middle, the men of Her’s future have crossed over into creepy, simpering asexual beings (this was also true of the characters played by Chris Pratt and Matt Letscher).

Maybe that was fitting. Maybe that was the point, and I’m missing it. Maybe that’s natural evolution. Maybe technology and attachment parenting and gold stars and constant approval and Mumford and Son will turn future generations of men into hipster Ken dolls who have lost the ability to repress, damnit, and who won’t stop sharing their feelings, and yay!-ing, and nattering and talking talking talking.

The problem with Theodore Twombly is that he made me feel like Ron Swanson, and I am not Ron Swanson.

It didn’t ruin Her for me, by any means, which was thoughtful, thought-provoking, wistful and romantic film, but it was not sexy, and even when a torrid romance takes place between a man and his operating system, a degree of sexiness should be required, but with a character like Twombly that’s impossible, and it makes me weep for a fictional future in which sexiness may no longer exist.




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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • I don't generally agree with you on a lot of things, Dustin, but you fucking hit this one out of the park. I couldn't agree more if I had written it myself.

  • BobbFrapples

    I enjoyed the film, but I got hung up on the role of someone writing someone else's love letters and it being accepted as the norm. The main character wrote for a grandson to his grandmother so much that he was invited to the grandson's college graduation. It was this subtle disconnect, that people could accept what a writer said for them as what was in their own hearts that disturbed me the most.

  • Yossarian

    Yeah, that was definitely Spike Jonze getting a little too cute with his world building. Presumably it goes to show the pervasiveness and general social acceptance of artificial and surrogate relationships. But it doesn't really hold up to logic all that well.

    Then again, this film kind of yadda yadda'd over the Singularity. I think we're not supposed to question the mechanics so much and just focus instead on the existentialism.

  • logan

    Looks Like Jonhnny Galecki to me in those glasses.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    So you are saying that Theodore Twombly would not punch someone in the face if they called his girlfriend a *$&!#@ !!($^ ?

  • crispin

    "Her" is incredibly dull and has a cop-out ending.

  • At one point, when I thought the film was ending but it WASN'T (foiled again!), and they were standing by that weird plane sculpture thing, I thought, "ohpleaseohpleaseohplease let it fall on them!" And it didn't.

    And then, at the end, when they're on the roof, I thought, "ohpleaseohpleaseohplease let them jump to their-- GODDAMMIT."

  • John G.

    I absolutely adored Her. Not all of us have the same issues with needing to feel "masculine" like Dustin does. Dustin, go punch something if you need to, but don't be putting your issues on one of my favorite films of the year.

  • Robert Sanchez III

    The thing I don't get is Dustin doesn't come off as a masculine dude to me in any of his writing. Its always fucking snark. I feel like a savage reading his stuff sometimes and I liked Theodore.

  • I thought Joaquin Phoenix's character was a little depressed and a lot burned by his last relationship. How that is not masculine (whatever that means) is beyond me.

  • "This is not an indictment of Phoenix’s performance — which was so superb — but of the character that he and Jonze chose to create: A weak, soft-spoken romantic flibberty fizz."

    I REALLY didn't like this movie, either. And I want to add some additional commentary to your point because that's what writers love, I'm sure: Cool story, Dustin; now, hand me the mic.

    The kind of "romantic flibberty fizz" Phoenix created was INCREDIBLY creepy because it isn't authentic. It's the kind of "romantic" douchey guys are who also say things like, "::sigh::, seems like chicks only want Bad Boys and they're not willing to put in the time to read my free-verse poetry or hear my thoughts about Doctor Who."

    There's a point where he confronts, aggressively, Samantha about the breathiness in her voice -- hitting Samantha where she lives because she's interested in being. She wants to become. Keep in mind she has access to EVERYTHING about Twomby -- emails, texts, searches, creepy phone sex transcripts -- and she never hauls those out against Twomby. He attacks her for her aspiration.

    Early in the film, when he's setting up his OS and is walking through the question prompts, he's asked what kind of relationship he has with his mother. Twomby says something along the lines of, "She always turned things about me into things about her." And then, throughout the movie, we watch Twomby do the same thing to Samantha -- not allowing her to have an experience that he doesn't turn into something about him.

    He never changes in the movie. He doesn't grow. He doesn't evolve. Good relationships, I think, foster evolution. But he doesn't want a relationship. He wants someone to be in charge of making him less lonely. Samantha, though, finally progresses too far for him.

    One of the things the movie did that was smart -- but I wish had been more explicit about -- is how, even in this utopia of fuzzy color and high-waisted pants, Twomby can't find love because he doesn't want it.

  • Yossarian

    I really didn't get that douchey vibe from the character. I know what you're describing but I don't think that level of resentment of women was being shown here. I think it would have had to be an issue in other relationships to draw that conclusion, not just the confrontation with Samantha. Because otherwise he seemed awkward and disinterested but not hostile.

    And hostility in an argument with a partner is a little different. I actually thought it was a good question- why is she so breathy?- that it was perfectly reasonable for someone in a relationship with a computer to question the nature and sincerity of her affections. (And the answers belied one of my bigger problems with the film, that Samantha is basically magic and completely alive, and therefor sort of useless as anything but a fantastical foil for the Theodore character. I actually find it odd that you identify with her more than him)

    But your last paragraph is spot-on.

  • Bob Genghis Khan

    I've said it before in another post, but, frankly, if you can't draw the line between actor and character, it's your problem.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Especially odd considering his inclination to separate the artist from the work for, say, musicians.

  • Yossarian

    His character really reminded me of Kip from Napoleon Dynamite. I'm not sure if he was intentionally channeling that, or just that type of person, but once my mind made the association it was really hard to shake. Right down to the mustache and uncomfortably soft voice.

    But I didn't find myself loathing the character. I thought it was a good portrayal of someone introverted, which is really difficult to do in film because we (the audience) usually need a significant amount of charisma from our protagonist to hold our interest. I didn't get simpering or creepily asexual. Timid and soft-spoken, maybe. Aloof. But not necessarily off-putting. The character seemed to have a range of thoughts and complexity and for my money did a great job of conveying all that on screen. He wasn't Jesse from Before Sunrise, but that that's the point. Ethan Hawk wouldn't be drawn into a relationship with an inanimate object, he'd just have opinions and theories about the type of people who are.

    I think looking for his sexiness to make the rom-com relationship work is missing the point (or, at least futile since he really has none). But his humanity was there, and looking for that to anchor the character and the relationship and the question it raises about ourselves and our own relationships is where the meaning in the film resides.

  • All I could think of when you said Kip was Kif from Futurama.

    And that made me smile.

  • JoannaRobinson

    I thought the flashbacks (what revealing, lovely flashbacks) did a good job of establishing that this is a PHASE of Theodore's life, not who he is. He used to have a healthier relationship with physical affection and with his friends and the outside world. He's retreating right now. Licking his wounds.

  • crispin

    They were painfully cliche flashbacks.

    Blowing an eyelash off of her fingertip!? Come on!

  • JoannaRobinson

    Agree to disagree. I thought that both Phoenix and Mara did an amazing job conveying nuance with little to no dialogue.

  • But do you think we can safely say those are HIS flashbacks? What HE chooses to remember of that relationship? Because the dynamic at that VERY uncomfortable lunch seemed to suggest that her flashbacks would not necessarily align with his.

    Or: It's not a phase. Twomby's toxic.

  • JoannaRobinson

    Oh did she come off as the sympathetic one to you in that lunch scene?

  • Yossarian

    Did either of them? There was a lot of baggage in that scene. Basically the only reason he was able to sit across the table from her finally, after a year, is because he was emboldened by his new relationship. I think his flashbacks are clearly fixated on the good times, and the loss, and self pity. She probably does have a different take.

    And I think that point of her reaction was that his relationship with an operating system was, for her, indicative of the same faults and problems that she experienced and left him over. Her anger seemed justifiable, although maybe not very sympathetic.

  • JoannaRobinson

    No I don't think it was one or the other in the lunch scene, I think it was both. Baggage and emotional trauma from both of them. And yes the flashbacks depicted MOSTLY good times but some bad as well. But when we think back (fondly, self-pityingly) would we dwell on the unhappy times?

  • crispin

    I felt complete sympathy for her during that scene. He tells her he's in love with an Operating System. A computer! If your significant other told you a series of code is more emotionally appealing than you, wouldn't you flip out and feel hurt by that?

  • JoannaRobinson

    I'm not saying her hurt reaction to his relationship was unrealistic, but it's not as if he dumped her for an OS. Quite the reverse. She left him. He's feeling sad and isolated and depressed and disconnected and finds temporary, deluded comfort in technology. I don't think Samantha and Theodore have some great love story nor do I think Theodore is actually in love with Samantha. He's in love with the idea of her and seduced by the ease of companionship without messy difficulty of humanity. I think the film isn't a love story at all.

  • John G.

    Wow! I love this. You're my favorite person today.

  • Yes!

    She was angry, and hurt -- and yeah, those aren't necessarily always cute looks. But when he reveals his relationship with Samantha, his ex-wife realizes that he's in a relationship with something he's able to control and perfect, rather than deal with the messy pieces of an actual human being.

    He's good at the trappings of intimacy -- those letters -- but he's not good at honest, organic intimacy.

    (I'm making a lot of THIS IS THE WAY proclamations -- but I'm just guessing mostly and working out my own thinking.)

  • "I thought it was a good portrayal of someone introverted."

    I can get down with this -- but I want to turn the screw one more notch and say that Twomby uses his introversion defensively. He's not a healthy introvert: someone who isn't energized by expansive interactions and who needs alone time to re-charge and counterbalance all that psychic energy relationships require. Instead, he's just shitty at interpersonal interactions (unless they're carefully scripted into twee letters), and then uses "introvert" as a badge and shield.

    Ugh. I did NOT like that character at all.

    (But I really liked your analysis. Oh! And! "I didn't get simpering or creepily asexual." NO! Because: those sex scenes were some of the WORST THINGS WITNESSED BY MY EARS/EYES/HEART/MIND.)

  • fribbley

    And his pants! Good heavens, his pants...

    If that's what we're all wearing in the future, I'm opting out.

  • BWeaves

    Hey, I lived through the 70's. I wore higher waisted pants than that.

    Then there are those photos of my Uncle George in a Zoot Suit in the 1940's. Pants don't get any higher than your armpits.

  • kirbyjay

    Jumpsuits?

  • e jerry powell

    Don't give menswear designers any ideas...

  • JoannaRobinson

    I LOOOOOOOOOVED the future pants. Especially what they did to Chris Pratt.

  • fribbley

    Different strokes for different folks, I guess!

  • This movie needed some Justin Timberlake...

    ...to bring sexy back...

    ...to the future...

    ...it could've also used some 80's era Lea Thompson, but so could every movie.

  • Three_nineteen

    Re: Fassbender - Did you feel that way about Ralph Fiennes after Schindler's List? Or didn't you find Fiennes's performance as good as Fassbender's?

  • Wigamer

    I felt that way for a bit after seeing Schindler's List. I'm on the fence about seeing 12 Years for the same reason--I do like Fassbender, both for the sexy and his really incredible talent. I've wondered if one of the reasons he's eschewed all of the award-season campaigning is because he doesn't want to win for a character like Epps. I admire actors who are willing to help tell an important story by playing despicable characters believably. I think it's to their credit.

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