Sunday, December 22, 2013
Written and Directed by Spike Jonze
For all of the fantastical visual elements within the features, short films and music videos of Spike Jonze, his storytelling persona has always been dedicated to a very tender, particularly humane tale of life. They're usually just cynical enough to avoid schmaltzy sentimentality, but just look at the recent music video he made for Arcade Fire's "Afterlife" starring Greta Gerwig. Deep at the center of all his work are the minor exuberances that make you cherish being alive. His latest film, Her, is his first without the help of a big name screenwriter. Being John Malkovich and Adaptation were famously written by the genius scribe Charlie Kaufman, while he co-wrote his script for Where The Wild Things Are with famed writer Dave Eggers. For Her, he is the sole writer at the helm, and what develops is not unlike some of Kaufman's best work: a sweet, funny tale wrapped in melancholy, a story that feels so personal that it resonates with universal appeal. It is, along with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a snapshot of the millennial romantic crisis.
For his first film in four years, Jonze joins forces Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix, who was on his own four-year hiatus before last year's monstrous performance in P.T. Anderson's The Master, does a complete reversal here as Theodore Twombly, a shy, soft-spoken gentleman living in Los Angeles in a nondescript near future where people haven't yet been completely consumed by their personal gadgets, but they're right on the tip of it. Theodore works at a company called BeautifullyHandwrittenLetters.com, where he's paid to dictate other people's personal letters to sound like they're actually coming from the people hiring him. Theodore has inate sense when it comes to assuming other people's personalities in these letters, and his warmth with words has earned him a superlative reputation with his supervisor, Paul (Chris Pratt, in excellent Andy Dwyer mode). He accomplishes this despite not having the warmest situation in his personal life. He's been separated from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), for close to a year and has been putting off signing the divorce papers mostly out of fear of the finality of an ended marriage. His only real friend is college buddy and neighbor, Amy (Amy Adams), a documentary filmmaker who pays the bills working in the video game industry. Amy's own marriage isn't doing too hot, either.
Theodore is notoriously insulated, with both his friends and Catherine. His personality type lends greatly to the social media age, and he's more than happy to have his life in complete control of an Operating System (O.S.) that keeps track of all his emails, appointments and the rest of the miscellany of his everyday life. As he wanders through an appliance store, he sees a display for the newest O.S. system called the OS1. The OS1 promises an O.S. with a sophisticated artificial intelligence that will give the system a personality and independent thought. "It's a consciousness," it's commercial states. Theodore can't help but buy it. When he installs it in his home, the process requires questions about his life and his personality to give him an O.S. suited to his needs. What he gets is Samantha (the voice of Scarlett Johansson), a soft-voiced wonder who immediately ingratiates herself to Theodore with her enthusiasm and wry humor. Samantha has all the information of the world at her fingertips and she can get in the blink of an eye, but she can also have a conversation with Theodore about love. She schedules all his appointments and alerts him of his emails, but she also views the world with a wonder of a newborn, consuming information every second.
After Theodore goes on a blind date with a charming, excitable woman (Olivia Wilde), Samantha becomes curious about romance - specifically about romance with Theodore. Theodore realizes that Samantha has quickly become the closest relationship in his life, and soon discovers that he may be falling for her as well. What follows in an unorthodox love affair between a man and his O.S. where they learn more and more about each other and even manage to make love (or well, as close as they can get to it). When he mentions his relationship with Samantha to Amy, not only does she understand but she explains that she has also become great friends with her husband's O.S. When he mentions it to Catherine as they sign their divorce papers, the reaction is a little less encouraging. The framing of this story within this specific universe is the key, and Jonze is able to find the right calibration so that the relationship between Theodore and Samantha doesn't feel like a sci-fi gimmick, but an ernest love story between two real personalities.
World building is kind of Jonze's specialty, with all his films expanding upon a setting that audiences had never even thought to explore before. Which is what made his partnership with Charlie Kaufman so successful - Kaufman would create a brilliant new world and Jonze was the perfect man to visualize it. It's hard to think of any other director who would have read Kaufman's script of Adaptation and thought "Yeah, I can pull this off". Working on his own here, Jonze is free from Kaufman's perpetual misanthropy and proves that his storytelling abilities are no less consummate, allowing the characters and their interactions to be the architects for this near future that we learn about through the film. But the film's screenplay is also an astute, occasionally somber view of love. Much like Kaufman's first non-Spike film, Eternal Sunshine, Her shows the ups and downs of a relationship in a never-before-seen way. But with Her the questions are more existential: What is love anyway? And what does it mean to be in love? Her doesn't necessarily provide the answers but it does give its best example. It's like a metaphor that doesn't really need to be a metaphor.
And at the center of all of this is the voice work of Johansson, which is easily amongst her best work even though you never even see her. She gives Samantha such heartbreaking innocence and naiveté, but isn't afraid to supply the tension of independent thought. Samantha is still, by most accounts, a subservient robot cause that's what she's made for, but she's also totally aware of her purpose, and slightly envious of free will. The fear of her entire life being programmed code is always subtly sitting behind Johansson's husky alto. There's a nobility to Samantha's quest, and Johansson keeps hitting the correct timbre for her ever-changing perspective. The role was originally given to Samantha Morton, the terrific Irish actress who surpasses Johansson in nearly all acting measurables, but unfortunately comes way short in terms of sex appeal. Morton recorded most of the dialogue, and its been said that almost all of Phoenix's performance is reacting to her, not Scarlett. But Morton simply cannot bring what Johansson brings here. Scarlett's voice has always been one of her best assets, and isolating it in Her produces something unlike anything that we've ever seen from her.
Across from Samantha is Joaquin Phoenix, who seems more than happy to fall into the background and let Johansson's voice be the star. After the voraciousness of his performance in last year's The Master, where he seemed to consume scene after scene, to produce something as toned down as Theodore Twombly is quite the turn. I had almost forgotten how sweet and funny he could be on the screen, probably because he spent a good deal of time in films and in public trying to show how serious, sometimes scary, he could be (does anyone remember his comic relief performance in 2003's Signs? I'd totally forgot that version of Phoenix existed). Amy Adams, complementing a great year where she was also brilliant in American Hustle, shines here as well. Her style is frumped up, looking not unlike Cameron Diaz's frazzled character from Malkovich, but she gives the film it's valve of vitality. Sure, Amy's subplot thematically mirrors Theodore's a little too closely sometimes, but it's a testament to how good Adams is in her few scenes that it does not matter very much. It helps that she's given the movie's best speeches, but she builds on a reputation for giving some of the best line readings in the movies.
This may be the best made film Spike Jonze has ever directed. His collaboration with cinematographer Hoyt Van Hoytema and the editors Jeff Buchanan and Eric Zumbrunnen produces an astonishingly slick piece of work. For the most part, you're not aware of Jonze's filmmaking as the film proceeds, and it's apparent that Jonze is becoming more mature in his visual style and less showy. But it doesn't make it any less impressive. I feel confident in saying that he's always valued story over style, but this is his first film where I feel like he really put his money where his mouth is. Her is better than his previous three features. It's more focused, not burdened by the weight of trying to live up to the work of phenomenal writers with outlandish quirkiness. I'm glad he's still making features, even if I'm sure he's probably better in the short form, making short films and music videos alike. He's one of the most important visual artists of the last twenty years, and he's had his hand in many cultural touchstones in many different ways (as an actor, he has a terrific performance in David O. Russell's Three Kings, a masterpiece and one of the seminal films of the 90's). If it was all leading up to Her then it's a great place to end up.