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MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Under the Skin’ is daring but lacks plot

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Scarlett Johansson stars in “Under the Skin.” (Special Photo: A24)

Under the Skin

(R)

2 out of 4 stars

After receiving deserved critical acclaim at the age of 12 in the sublime “Manny & Lo” from 1996, Scarlett Johansson spent a few years treading water by playing teens in largely mediocre films, then she firmly established herself as a bona-fide adult actress in the 2003 “Lost in Translation.” In the years since, she has served as Woody Allen’s muse, appeared in multiple “Avengers” flicks and is famous mostly because of her (some may say overrated) looks rather than her acting talent.

In a manner not completely dissimilar from that of Jude Law in this week’s “Dom Hemingway,” Johansson stars in an art film she probably thought would get people to view her as something more than just an attractive celebrity. Some might, but its likely most will conclude she is relying more on her looks than she ever has and doing so in a low-budget think-piece won’t alter the perception.

With an opening title sequence that recalls “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Under the Skin” starts and ends with vision and promise but in between it contains a lot of missed opportunities and inconsequential filler. It’s the third feature effort from helmer Jonathan Glazer and with each subsequent frame, it is clear that he is aping Stanley Kubrick. And whether you love him or loathe him, Kubrick is not the kind of director anyone can ape with success.

Lacking the bat guano, nut-burger assault of “Sexy Beast” or the chilled queasiness of “Birth,” Glazer (working with a screenplay by Walter Campbell based on a novel by Michel Faber) interprets the material with an alternately ham-handed and tentative approach. Long, color-drained, near-silent and brittle passages are juxtaposed with those having jarring sound volume, over-saturated film stock and thoroughly incomprehensible dialogue. The story is set in Scotland and — not to fault the actors playing native Scots — Glazer should have provided subtitles for these segments. This is even more problematic given the relatively small amount of actual talking that takes place.

Johansson plays Laura, who makes her entrance a la Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Terminator 2” by showing up naked and commandeering the clothing of someone else, and it marks the first of several scenes where Johansson appears in the nude for long stretches of time. This will certainly be considered beyond great news for those who consider Johansson to be a curvy goddess but will reinforce the claim she is relying on her looks and hourglass figure. Unless she is conversing with Scots, Laura’s face is a blank slate, conveying nothing, completely vacuous.

Some could validly argue that if Laura is indeed an alien, as it is implied, a stoic, emotionless outward façade is apropos, but again, this does nothing to support Johansson’s bland performance. While she might do what is required for the role, it’s not all that taxing in a thespian sense. Taking what was probably a huge pay cut and performing in the buff is artistically and professionally daring, but if the part is little more than playing a mannequin, it ends up being all for naught.

You may have noticed there has been no mention of the plot thus far, which is mostly because there is none; at least not in any kind of traditional or even a skewed sense. It won’t spoil anything to reveal that Laura (always dressed like a hooker) cruises the streets driving a van and asking for directions from men who are currently not romantically involved or with families. Is this because she’s pegging guys who might not be missed? Why isn’t she also looking for females? Why is she in Scotland? None of these questions are answered much less raised, but then again, this is an art film and those sort of piddling inquiries mean nothing. It’s attitude and intent that are paramount, not sense or narrative logic.

In all fairness to the filmmakers, the movie is loaded to the gills with atmosphere and for those who eschew a point A to point B type of story, “Under the Skin” could be perceived as an unqualified masterpiece. It is extremely daring, takes lots of chances, despises the idea of spoon-feeding the audience and (maybe) brings with it some heavy-duty, socio-political metaphors.

For Johansson, it’s probably a professional break-even affair. She stepped outside the box and showed that she’s willing to go full-Monty but is being a vacant, scantily clad, sometimes naked man-eater the best way to prove one’s artistic range and legitimacy? You can let her know with your wallet. (A24)