Last of the Monster Kids

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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Director Report Card: Spike Jonze (2013)

4. Her

Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman just can't get away from each other. “Her,” the director's fourth feature, was initially believed to be a Jonze original. He is the only writer officially credited with the screenplay. It's premise – a lonely man falls in love with his computer's operating system – certainly seems in Kaufman's wheelhouse though. Later, we learned that Kaufman did some uncredited rewrites on the movie, which explains that. The film, the director's latest, would be another critically acclaimed hit, out-grossing its budget and winning one Academy Award and being nominated for four others.

It's the near future. Theodore Twombly, who works for a company that writes letters upon request for other people, is currently going through a divorce with his longtime wife. Lonely and unlucky in love, Theodore buys a new, high-tech operating system. The artificial intelligence names itself Samantha and begins to communicate with Theodore. She's smart, funny, and knows everything Theodore is thinking. Theodore quickly falls in love and Samantha shares his feelings. However, having a romantic relationship with an operating system comes with its own problems.

Science fiction is full of far-out depictions of the future. Usually these veer towards the implausible. The exact time period “Her” takes place in is never specified. However, I'd wager it's bound to be one of the more realistic depictions of the future. Things look more or less the same as they do now. It's mostly the hardware that's different. Computers are tiny handheld devices that are primarily voice activated. Even chat rooms are operated by voice. Video games are large holographic programs, the user interacting with them via hand motions. It's a world that extrapolates from currently existing technology, suggesting a future that seems pretty plausible.

One aspect of this future strikes me as especially interesting. In my original review of “Her,” I fixated on what is probably a small background detail. Theodore is not the only one on his damn computer all the time. Nearly every person we see in the background has earbuds on and are looking at a tiny screen. If a critique of digital-assisted narcissism is in the film's DNA, it's easy to extend this theme to the main story. The first thing Samantha does when Theodore turns her on is ask about himself. The OS reflects back his own personality to him. That's why he falls in love with her so quickly, as Theodore is constantly inside his own head. Is Jonze poking at millennial ego-centrism in “Her?” Or is this simply an accurate, if exaggerated, depiction of our screen and social media obsessed world as it exist now?

I'm probably way off, as “Her” is most concerned with more worldly ideas. It's a story about loneliness and love. Theodore's loneliness is reflected in his solitary work environment and empty apartment. Even when he's with Samantha, he's often literally alone, as she's never physically with him. The loneliness brings the two of them together, as Samantha often expresses a sense of isolation too, a computerized voice in a cyberspace void. They compliment one another, Samantha getting Theodore out of his apartment and Theodore giving Samantha a sense of self in the physical world.

Joaquin Phoenix has become well-known for giving intense in auteur projects. “Her” finds him in a far more relaxed form. With a bristly Ned Flanders mustache, a pair of thick glasses, and high-waisted pants, he’s not immediately recognizable. As Theodore, he’s a soft-spoken, withdrawn, shy man. Phoenix makes the hurt the character is obviously suffering from apparent on his face and in his body language. He’s tired and sad at most times but doesn’t most people see it. When Samantha comes into his life, he’s suddenly re-energized. Yet Phoenix doesn’t let the character’s self-centered side go either. Theodore is sweet and hurting but he’s also prickly and prone to selfish fits. It’s a well-rounded, well realized performance.

As the other half of the relationship, present in voice but not body, is Scarlett Johansson as Samantha. Samantha Morton was originally cast in the part but Johansson replaced her in post production. Though I suppose we'll never know how Morton was in the part, it's hard to imagine anyone else bringing Samantha to life besides Johansson. Johansson's smoky voice is distinctive enough to be recognizable but not so much that you loose sight of Samantha as a unique character. Johansson communicates sweetness, when gently flirting with Theodore. Yet Samantha isn't simply a digitized Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She has fears and vulnerabilities all her own. That Johansson pulled all of this off with only her voice finally dismissed the belief that she was only a pretty face.

The focus is primarily on Phoenix and Johansson but “Her” features a strong supporting cast too. One way the film bumps up against wish fulfillment is by giving Theodore a succession of beautiful girlfriends. His ex-wife is Ronney Mara, his platonic best friend is Amy Adams, he nearly sleeps with Portia Doubleday, and he goes out on a hot date with Olivia Wilde. The film fends this off with the strength of its cast. In her little amount of screen time, Wilde projects a raw vulnerability. Doubleday has a similar attribute, though her character has less to do. Adams consistently brings a light presence to her scenes, being charming and sweet. Mara, meanwhile, is powerful and forceful during a key moment, where she calls Theodore on his bullshit.

The idea of a romance between a human and a computer certainly seems tawdry. It's a premise that has been mined for other movies, like cult comedy “Electric Dreams,” and various anthology TV shows. “Her” does, indeed, feature a sex scene between Theodore and Samantha. However, it's far from sleazy. Instead, the scene is approached with genuine eroticism. The first love scene is conveyed primarily through their voices. Eventually, the scene fades to black, forcing the audience to focus solely on their voices. The focus is more on the characters' feelings then how their bodies intertwine. It's an astonishingly well executed sequence.

Ultimately, whatever love or intimacy Theodore and Samantha have isn't enough to save their relationship. Samantha can change and evolve endlessly, while Theodore is limited to one human mind. A startling scene reveals that she is stretching in infinite directions at once, in love with hundreds of A.I.s at the same time, much to Theodore's shock. This is a precursor to probably the kindest depiction of the Singularity in all of fiction. It emerges as metaphor for the limits of a relationship, where one partner is able to grow and the other isn't. It crystallizes Theodore's status as an emotionally immature person. But the film isn't criticizing him cruelly. Because who hasn't been there before?

Spike Jonze's visual design continues to evolve in interesting ways with “Her.” The director smartly utilizes color, making a contrast between Theodore's at-first sterile environments which become more colorful after he meets Samantha. The director also creates a mood where characters are haunted by their memories and past mistakes. The film is often interspersed with Theodore's memories of his marriage, his fantasies, and his latest adventures with Samantha. This is most powerful near the end, where a trip to a snowy cabin takes on new meaning. A sequence where Theodore goes running after his O.S., fearing her gone, also features some “Where the Wild Things Are”-style handheld work.

“Her” also sees Jonze re-teaming with Karen O. of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. O. contributes a song to the film, “The Moon Song,” a delightfully sweet and whimsically sparse number that managed to charm its way to an Oscar nomination. Most of the score is provided by Owen Pallett and the indie rock band Arcade Fire. In addition to also including a song, a decent number called “Supersymmetry” that plays over the end credits, the band's score is a mix of sparse and rich. Gentler sounds contrasts with softly vibrating instrumentation. Sometimes, a more lyrical melody emerges, usually signaling a more emotional moment for the characters. It's a score that works for the film, though isn't especially listenable on its own.

Jonze claims that “Her” was inspired after an encounter with a real artificial intelligence, though one far less advanced then what appears in the movie. Others have felt free to read into Jonze's personal life, as he created the movie following a high profile divorce from Sofia Copolla and a break-up with Michelle Williams. Whether or not “Her” is based on Jonze's own romantic life is up for debate but the director clearly put a lot of his own feelings and emotions into the movie. Despite its science-fiction premise, it's a beautifully acting and powerful meditation on the strength and weakness of the human (and digital) heart. [Grade: A]

Since “Her,” Spike Jonze has stayed fairly quiet. He's directed a few music videos – for Lady Gaga, Arcade Fire, and Kayne West – but has mostly been working as a producer. He's produced several television series for the fledgling Viceland network. Whether or not he has a new film in development, I don't know. I can imagine the director has something cooking somewhere. I look forward to it, whatever shape that takes, as all four of his features have been pretty fucking great.

I'm sorry this short Director Report Card took so long to complete. I have no one but myself to blame. I'll try to do better going forward. Thank you for reading.

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