Note: This story contains mild spoilers for the films “Cha Cha Real Smooth” and “The Lost Daughter.”
Johnson later revealed she was just riffing during the tour; the bowl was a set dressing she discovered in that moment, and she doesn’t even like limes — they make her tongue itch. The revelation also circulated online, bolstering her reputation for not only being witty, but exuding an air of mystery as well. Does she mean what she says, or is she masking the truth?
This enigmatic quality helped Johnson avoid being pigeonholed after her breakout role in “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Filmmakers from Luca Guadagnino to Maggie Gyllenhaal have cast Johnson in projects that, in theory, ask her to suggest hidden depths that reveal themselves over the course of the films. But of Johnson’s recent starring roles, only Gyllenhaal’s “The Lost Daughter” makes proper use of the actress’s strengths. Cooper Raiff’s “Cha Cha Real Smooth” and Carrie Cracknell’s “Persuasion,” released Friday on Netflix, fall short.
Johnson leads “Persuasion,” the new Jane Austen adaptation widely seen as veering into “Fleabag” territory. Like that comedy series, the film breaks the fourth wall by having its protagonist, Anne Elliot, the daughter of an uppity aristocrat, share witty commentary on the story’s happenings directly to the audience. Anne uses modern lingo like “exes” to describe her relationship with a sailor she was long ago convinced to abandon over differences in family income. She rolls her eyes at the camera when a manipulative sister identifies as an “empath.”
But unlike “Fleabag,” the fourth-wall-breaking here becomes a crutch. It does Johnson a disservice; she can’t strip back Anne’s layers if the writing lacks dimension. Although Anne is said to be tormented over the loss of her onetime lover, little beyond her words to the audience suggests her smirks belie inner turmoil. The most Johnson can do is lend self-awareness to a character who barely evolves.
In “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” streaming on Apple TV Plus, Johnson plays Domino, a woman in her early 30s who finds herself drawn to Andrew (writer-director Raiff), the 22-year-old party motivator at suburban bar mitzvahs Domino attends with her neuro-atypical teen daughter. The age difference between Domino and Andrew is far from egregious, but it contributes to a gap in maturity.
Domino says Andrew misjudged her attraction to him. This isn’t true love, and they aren’t “soul mates,” as he suggests. She is drawn to his youthful exuberance and the feeling of possibility she fears she will sacrifice by marrying her attorney fiance. Johnson understands as much, adopting intentionally cryptic expressions that mask Domino’s true dilemma. But the film ultimately heads toward romanticized cliche with writing that undermines Johnson’s performance, which had held out as the last defense against Raiff’s seeming self-absorption.
Gyllenhaal, a first-time feature director who set out to depict the spectrum of emotions experienced as a parent, cast Johnson in “The Lost Daughter” as an exhausted mother named Nina whose child agonizes over losing her doll on a Greek beach during a family vacation. The film’s also-vacationing protagonist, a divorced professor named Leda (Olivia Colman), is reminded of her own struggles as a young mother while observing Nina. The women form an unusual bond over this connection.
While the Netflix drama focuses on unpacking Leda, it makes the most of the screen time devoted to its supporting characters. Like Leda, Nina puts on a front. She feels stifled by her marriage and by motherhood, plagued by a depression that persists even as she seeks pleasure through an extramarital affair. Johnson conveys Nina’s creeping sense of desperation through uneasy smiles that counteract her intense gaze, building to a scene in which she all but pleads with Leda to tell her the anguish will pass.
There isn’t much humor to “The Lost Daughter” — perhaps only the sort eliciting a bitter chuckle — but the film stands as proof of Johnson’s versatility. Whether in a comedy or drama, her performances are puzzles that invite audiences to determine her characters’ true selves. She dares the viewer to believe, only to surprise them a scene or two later. It’s enough to make one wonder, is she even allergic to limes?