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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 |

By Dustin Rowles | Think Pieces | January 14, 2014 |

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.