My first reaction when seeing this video (released in 2007) was that Nick Cassavetes is no John Cassavetes. His credited contribution is "dialogue" and I have to say that I find that the scripted scenes between Timberlake and Johansson; and Timberlake, Johansson, and Hatosy add almost nothing to the video. In fact, part of me wishes they would just recut the video without the dialogue scenes (which, it turns out, they did). I love this conceptually; the idea of completely breaking down the viewer's assumption of what a music video is and broadening and enriching it, and I want to love the piece. But in my mind it just falls far too short to be considered groundbreaking in any way.
There's more criticism, but it's worth noting before we go further in that direction, that this piece does have some real cultural significance. This was the first music video to premiere exclusively on iTunes, a testament to the significant shift that has occurred over the last decade in the way that music videos are deployed for exposure. In the past, new music videos were placed by labels into heavy rotation on music television channels like VH1, fuse, and MTV (when they still played videos). Prior to the popularizing of the Internet, this arrangement benefited both labels and channels. Music video countdown shows garnered high ratings on television, and offered advertisers access to highly desirable demographics (at a premium price, of course). New video premieres from prominent artists were teased as heavily as any major studio release. Over the years, the primary forum for dissemination has shifted substantially away from television to the Internet. Yahoo!, AOL, MySpace, and other major brands all maintain substantial libraries of hosted music videos. Once labels realized that the internet provided 24/7 access to their videos and at a much cheaper "per viewer" price than television, they began to focus their attentions more in that direction. Was it a successful experiment? Reportedly, the video for What Goes Around Comes Around was purchased and downloaded 50,000 times the day of its premiere, which seems like a low number compared to the viewership of even the lowest rated television show, although it definitely provides a higher rate of return in the sense that iTunes and EMI all made money directly off each of those 50,000 consumers.
So, I've said enough about the bad. What do I like about it? Several things, actually, not the least of which is the fact that of the three actors, Timberlake comes out looking the best. I've always found him to be a unique talent: a musician with decent acting talent and loads of charisma. Like him or not, there's a reason why his live shows are very expensive and sell out every night all over the U.S. Bayer's camera direction almost makes up for his agreement to allow Cassavetes to contribute to the video. The settings are lush, and the composition is uniformly gorgeous. There's one shot in particular that stands out: a close up on the mic with just Timberlake's lower face and chin visible where just before singing a verse, his tongue darts out to quickly lick his lips. There are undeniably erotic overtones to most of the images (ignoring the explicitly erotic ones of Scarlett and Justin together), and it serves to underscore the lush production of the song.
Timberlake's song is a fairly juvenile one about the bitterness over losing a lover, though I think it's elevated quite a bit by his superior pop sensibilities. Despite the millions spent on production, I don't think (the director) Bayer ever loses track of who the true star of the video is, as despite all the background action, the vast majority of the footage during the actual song (setting aside the Cassavetes interludes for the moment) is Timberlake in front of the mic alone on stage. The video almost becomes more of a performance piece instead of a story piece. We get the obligatory soft focus shots of Scarlett as well, but they really appear as secondary elements.
Ultimately though, this video does very little to distinguish itself from the hundreds of other high gloss Hip Hop and R&B videos out there. It has a little more star power, and threw a little more money at the screen, but still manages to come out fairly uninspired. Which I confess is somewhat expected considering Bayer has long been a style over substance kind of guy. I'll highlight a few more of his earlier videos down the road, but as a point of comparison I'd invite you to check the Green Day videos for American Idiot, Holiday, and Boulevard of Broken Dreams, to get an idea of his range (hint, there isn't much).