Lucy: A Look Back on What Could’ve Been
This is not a review. At the end you will know no more about whether Lucy was good or bad than you did going in. This is me, after five days of stewing, countless Grantland articles and podcasts, and a few “more reputable” sources such as the New York Times about this movie—the ones of note being an article written by two of my favorite humans, Wesley Morris and Molly Lambert, and the other being the conversation between Wesley Morris and Alex Pappedemas on their half-rambling, half-1800 Paris coffee shop conversation podcast, Do You Like Prince Movies? (just to be clear there isn’t a cell in my body that thinks that The New York Times and The Washington Post reviewers, Manohla Dargis and Jen Chaney are any more intelligent or substantial than Grantland’s staff writers). Everyone is coming from 100 different directions on this movie which is either a great sign, like in the case of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou which is almost certainly one of Wes Anderson’s best movies but sports a 56% on Rotten Tomatoes, or perhaps a very bad sign like in the case of the recent shitshow, Tammy, whose 3/5 rating and 40% positive from the audience is both confounding and infuriating. After this almost week of reliving every moment from Scarlett Johansson’s second summer blockbuster back to front I have some thoughts on this semi-masterpiece, semi-travesty, semi-pretty okay movie which I’d like to get down on paper. Before I go into what Lucy was, let us review what Lucy could have been. Lucy could have been the best movie of the year, Besson could’ve made a lofty, at times strange, ingenious film like The Fifth Element. This film could have single-handedly changed the careers of not just Scarlett Johansson (which might not actually need changing—we’ll get to that) but the careers of every actress from this point on. Lucy could have made me happy when I left the theater instead of supremely confused having to defend the most minimal of details to the people I saw it with. But most importantly, it could easily have been the first genuine film with a female lead in a mainstream action movie since 2004’s Kill Bill. Lucy didn’t need to be sexy, buffoonish, inhuman, a child, or the desecration of one of the greatest graphic novels ever written. Lucy could’ve changed what it means to be a woman in a movie.
Before you continue, you should understand that I think movies are big. Not just important but big, bigger than just a movie, bigger than just a piece of culture. I wholeheartedly believe that film, TV, and especially music are among the most important things in the world. It is not even close to exaggeration to say that hip-hop has saved my life. Not in a Lupe, going down the wrong path kind of way, but in the way that were it not for the months of music on my computer I would have lost the will to live years ago. I feel the same way about movies. That is why I write this blog which averages one viewer a day and where the pieces I really care about, the ones I poor my soul into, languish near the bottom of the most-viewed list. That is why I feel the need to ask more of movies than maybe they are prepared to give me. That is why I was so passionate about Lucy.
There are few things I can genuinely say I am passionate about. I’m not the kind of person who cares about many things, an eternal misanthrope with a fuck the world chip on my shoulder so big I can’t see to my right. I have in my life only ever been passionate about: dance, hip-hop, my friends—who I can count on my phalanges without taking my shoes off, human rights, the fact that everything is immeasurably better than every Apple products, one girl—one time, and movies. For me to truly love something it has to move me and I can’t say that about much—but movies, cinema that is where I can find my moment. Movies are the great equalizer and can influence and speak to the nature of our society better than anything else. My life has been changed more often by great movies than by anything else but music. And I think the right film could change the world—that’s how big I think Lucy is, that’s how big I believe it is to give your money to a ticket attendant and sitting in your seat in a dark room with a crowd of strangers to have the same experience.
Five minutes into Lucy I was hopeful, almost giddy. The last decade of Scarlett Johansson lead up this almost perfect prelude. She stands outside a Taipei hotel, across from her bungling boyfriend, as he looks over his sunglasses and fiddles with his cowboy hat speaking with the rapidity of a crack-addled 1980s stock broker. Scar Jo looks back at him, piercing with indifference as she rebuffs all of his please. For an instant I held my breath, struck dumb by the shear swagger of the 5’3” actress looking up at her male counter-part but still running circles around him like she was the Spurs of the 2014 finals. It was clear this women was not playing in the same league as her co-star. I can just imagine the first 26 takes of this shot, Besson yells cut and pulls aside Pilou Asbaek, who plays Richard Lucy’s pseudo-boyfriend in the film, “look,” Besson says, imploring Asbaek, “you already look ridiculous standing next to this beautiful woman. I already need to convince millions of people who 50% of which would give their off-hand for a night with her, that you, a strange Danish looking man have been able to achieve what almost no man could. I’ve already got these insurmountable odds against me; let’s not have you also get lost in this scene. Act, god dammit!” I also imagine that by take 27 it was clear no one was going to be able to match Johansson’s charm and he hung his head and powered through. The clock ticked from there and after stealing scene after scene for the entirety of the first act of this film something switched.
I’m not going to lie to you and pretend like I could ever be critical of Scarlett Johansson. The truth is I am a sucker for ScarJo, I will watch anything with her in it. If I was a stick posters up on your wall guy I’d have a giant one of Johansson in between the framed posters of NWA and the original release poster for 7 Samurai. The short and long of it is, I am a Scarlett apologist I think she can do no wrong. The difference here, this was no wrong. Johansson’s last three major roles in movies not released by Disney: Her, Under Her Skin, and Lucy. For you and me and Besson this is a film about knowledge, about the evolution of ideas, and the savior of humanity. For Johansson it was something entirely different. What is to follow is an idea incubated in my head around minute 80 of Lucy and nurtured through reading Wesley Morris and Molly Lambert. Imagine you are Scarlett Johansson for a moment—I know spectacular isn’t it—five years ago you were a joke among the critics tacked on at the end of casting and passed a sheet full of lines most of which was taken up with a more TnA than serious acting. Five years ago you were staunchly insistent that you were a serious actor, marked mostly by your refusal to ever do nudity because despite the jeers of your critics you are a good actor. Then your worst nightmare, a couple of photos of you, and undeniably you, naked and now all you can do is wait, biting your nails and hoping the next offer isn’t Jaws 7: Bouncing Tits on the Beach in 3D because that would be the end and chance you ever had at being Meryl Streep, Katherine Hephburn, or Cate Blanchett. But astoundingly the buzz began to shift, no longer are you just a pretty face in a skin tight outfit are “steal scenes,” “ooze charisma,” could even be “a great actor.” Now with the ability to choose your films what do you do? You make movies about the body. But more importantly movies that question the importance of a body. Her the story of a man who falls for a women despite the fact that she doesn’t even have a physical form. Under the Skin, about a being hiding in the skin of another whose beautiful form is both the source of her power and the cause of her downfall. And of course, Lucy, whose conflict is about the mind’s destruction of the body, a body unable to feel, grow, or adapt. In Lucy it is clear from the first conversation with the perpetually trailing Richard Lucy’s body, although by his own words, “a perfect 10” is far inferior to her mind.
Now this is the part in the movie most of my peers have their hands up crying about. I shall address it briefly: no, using more of your brain isn’t a thing; no, if you have 100% of your brain you wouldn’t be able to fling people around and stop time Charles Xavier-esque. But unless I saw a different movie than the rest of you this was not a documentary. I am well aware it’s a ridiculous premise for a plot, but I’ve never been of the mind that my films need to be scientifically accurate—sure abiding by the laws of physics would be nice (don’t try and tell me Jonah Hill can jump 20 feet and catch on to a flying helicopter unless it’s for laughs) but other than that—who the fuck cares?!
I have never been a huge Luc Besson fan: I loved Leon: the Professional The Fifth Element, anyone who can coax that performance out of skinny Chris Tucker is a friend-o-mine. And while the Transporter series is fun in its own rite there isn’t much else in his body of work I’ve enjoyed. This is after all the man who managed to make Robert De Niro seem flat. But I will say one thing for Besson in this film, he had grand intentions. Lucy was supposed to be a movie about the meaning of life, and how to add purpose to your existence. But at a piddly 88 minutes there was little chance he was going to achieve such goals. It’s hard to look at this work as cinema d’autor and cry its praise. But I think I have one change that could’ve made this film 100 times better, no it wouldn’t have made it what it needed to be, one simple change could never make this film what it was supposed to be. But if you had set Lucy in the future, in space, with aliens, in a land that seemed a little less familiar it would have toned down the shear shock-jock effect of some of Besson’s “big moments” and could’ve have earned it a positive rating from even the likes of the New York Times.
I have sung Lucy’s praises and I have addressed the 1000 pound elephant in the room, Luc Besson, if only briefly. And now we’ve reached the key point in my Lucy psychosis: how they missed a chance to be the most important film of the year, and what that means for the coming years in film.
It’s been nearly seven decades since Humphrey Bogart was at the peak of his career. A man who had Hollywood’s balls in his left hand and the adoration of the masses in his right. Bogart was too much for the screen, enveloping those on screen with him and sucking them in and devouring them in a Charles Kansian manner. In 1945, The African Queen was Humphrey Bogart’s movie, Katherine Hephburn was all but an afterthought; I still forget to this day that it was Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. Because it never mattered. But still nearly 70 years later Hollywood is a boy’s club. It remains a boys club even though we have Scarlett Johansson dancing circles around Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Matt Damon and stealing the show in a movie she never even appeared in. I’d like to answer the rhetorical question that seemingly oxymoronic situation asks, but I have no idea why that would be the case. I have no idea why 2010’s Salt was the best option for comparison sites like Box Office Mojo had. I don’t know why, in the last 5 years there have been four or five actresses allowed to play the lead in an action movie. And I don’t know why they were all so disappointing. But I do know this was the best chance we had. If this had been what it promised, if Besson had landed his lofty message, if it had been 30 minutes longer and 100% more focused, if it had had a handful fewer characters and a peck more action sequences this could have easily been 2008’s Iron Man. In three years we could’ve rebooted Charlies Angels and done it right, we could’ve seen Emily Blunt, Summer Glau, Lena Heady, Alexandra Daddario, and Keri Russell take over the silver screen in the summer of 2017 throwing bad guys through tables and shooting worse guys through glass. Lucy could’ve been the thesis in the greatest feminist film essay since the post-feminist modern heroine Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde. And in all honesty that could still happen because somehow, someway, Lucy murdered at the box office. Despite the fact that—brace yourself this is a sentence you never thought you’d hear—Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, and Min-sik Choi could’ve save this movie from itself.