Her is one of this year’s little Oscar winners that didn’t. There’s usually at least one (more is more likely now there are more nominees) in the Best Picture line up that isn’t embraced by the public to any significant degree. Nebraska might only have caught on if Jack Nicholson had been curmudgeoning it up in monochrome, but there’s a sense that Her crept under the radar. The online community tended to lap it up, as it speaks to a core dilemma du jour of our increasingly techno-fied human condition, one close to their hearts. Critics generally appreciated it (as you can see from the poster). And its thoughtfulness was duly recognised by the Academy; writer-director Spike Jonze went home with the Best Original Screenplay statue, duly recognised over generally favoured humorous observer of the (lack of) meaning of it all Woody Allen. Her is affecting in its pervading melancholy and astute in its insights into the fragility of relationships, but resists sustained depth through its reliance on ticks and quirks, ones that push it from touching to cartoonish at times, and a lack of discipline in the storytelling that leads to over-indulgence of characters and labouring of themes.
Jonze has chosen his big screen jaunts selectively, and this is only his fourth feature. His first two were blessed with Charlie Kaufmann screenplays, and the second of those, Adaptation, is the difficult one to beat in any director’s career. He floundered with Where the Wild Things Are, an interpretation of Maurice Sendak’s children’s book that underwent production turmoil and revealed that expansion of source material into a movie can sometimes be for the worse (this happened to The Grinch with far more horrific consequences). Jonze had a hand in the screenplay there, as does he here, and the recurring feature of these self-scribed pictures is an inability to hone the material. That, and a predilection for grinding metal in the difficult transition of ideas to screen. With Wild Things, the titular creatures themselves caused headaches. Here, Jonze second-guessed his decision to cast Samantha Morton as AI (or rather OS – Operating System) Samantha, feeling something didn’t click (this extended the editing period, with Scarlett Johansson brought in and additional scenes shot).
I’m a big fan of Morton, and much less of a fan of Johansson, so it seemed like a bum move on Jonze’s part, no matter how responsible and for the ultimate benefit of the movie it was. To Johansson’s credit the movie is carried by her vocal presence, and the relationship between Samantha and Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Pheonix’s soon-to-be-divorced professional letter writer) is imbued with closeness and intimacy as it revolves around the voice in his head. As soon as this is opened out – when Samantha and Theodore go on a picnic with a colleague of Theo (Chris Pratt) and his girlfriend – the illusion and artifice shatter and the scenario devolves into the completely goofy; how did anyone think we’d buy into this? Maybe that’s the point, but the tone feels off. Also on the debit side, Johansson carries around the baggage of an instantly recognisable voice and the consequently it seems at times as if Jonze has just plumbed for the easy option of a breathy fantasy object invisible girlfriend.
Hipster seems like an unwelcome catchall for any self-conscious or vaguely post-modern fashion sensibility. I don’t profess to be any kind of expert on the subject, but there’s no escaping it as a description of Phoenix’s nerd-chic Theo. Jonze clearly likes his mannered manifestations; just look at Nic Cage in Adaptation. But there it was at one with the content and the need to provide contrast between twin performances. Phoenix appears to have embraced goofy introspection and glazed eyes rather than soulfulness. There’s a level of dissonance between his articulate and insightful conversations with close friends, combined with the sometimes blissful remembrances of days past with Rooney Mara (one can only assume surrounding the actor with gorgeous Hollywood leading ladies is a purposeful irony at not seeing what is in front of you), and the shambling bespectacled doofus with trousers tucked high into his shirt and a performance-friendly, gone-to-seed moustache. This seems overt and intentional since Theo himself looks so different in some of the flashbacks, as if separation has sent him into his own Phantom Tollbooth. But it doesn’t entirely work. There are times when we get caught up in Theo’s interactions and forget that the actor and director have set the trappings of performance ahead of character. Yet just a look at the Theo’s name suggests a tug-of-war in Jonze’s mind. How much should he have the courage of his philosophical convictions and how much should he allow a whackier, crazier, more Burton-esque sensibility take over?
Apparently good buddy Steven Soderbergh provided a no-holds-barred edit for Jonze at a point where the latter was really stuck over what to cut. The result was a trim 90-minute movie (remember, Soderbergh’s the guy who did his own version of the sprawling Solaris in a similarly concise form). Jonze’s final edit is a good half hour longer, and it feels over-stretched. There is plenty of repetition, and at points the lingering languor overwhelms all else. The through line from Theo’s purchase of Samantha, little more than a household slave (albeit one who displays no objection to her plight – although she cannot at this point because she is yet to develop sufficiently to object) for whom the only access to a larger society and world is her master, to his own self-imprisoned dependence upon her is achieved with a degree of bloated symmetry.
It isn’t that Jonze’s points and general ruminations aren’t valid ones, it’s that he is frequently in danger of making the movie seem very slight; the point where the setting slides from affecting to affected. That’s his error of judgement stylistically. This is an intentionally heightened, insular world. It’s plastered with primary colours (mostly oranges and pinks) and such unlikely characters that at times Her borders on the “cute” invented quirkscapes of Zach Helm (Stranger than Fiction, Mr Magoriul’s Wonder Emporium). Interspersed are the spaces between action, emphasised by Hoyte Van Hoytema’ shallow focus cinematography; keeping the characters secluded in their own mental spaces (Van Hoytema has caught Nolan’s eye, and shot the upcoming Interstellar). And who better to reinforce this than Arcade Fire, masters of the mournful?
Sometimes Jonze’s choices are delightfully cohesive. The computer game Theo plays, a 3D construct filling his living room, in which he encounters a hyper offensive child (“Fuck you, shit head fuck fucker”) has a raucously infectious tone that appears to be playing with archetypes. Theo mediates between the goading child (“I hate women. All they do is cry all the time”) and the gently persuasive and mature Samantha; representations of his own ego? Theo has strayed from the world of interconnectedness to one of well-intentioned alienation. Jonze ensures we spend so much time with him that it is only when we glimpse the wider picture; swathes of commuters all caught up in their own similar self-involved escapism, that his malaise resonates. This is the problem with Phoenix and his bag of tricks performance. Compare his approach to the naturalism of Amy Adams (she just can’t put a foot wrong) or Mara and it looks like a misstep. It’s the actor’s actor performance, the sort of over-stoked confection that Dustin Hoffman or Cage or even Peter Sellers would embrace. Phoenix was amazing in The Master, but in Her it is frequently in spite of, rather than thanks to, his performance that the movie succeeds.
During the early stages, Jonze embraces a more Allen-esque tone (Johansson, of course, was briefly Woody’s muse for a couple of pictures) with the depressed and distanced Theo indulging several failed attempts to interact; telephone sex courtesy of Kristen Wiig that turns hilariously weird (“Choke me with that dead cat!”) and Olivia Wilde’s highly strung date, who moves from effusive to off-putting (“Don’t use so much tongue”) and finally offensive when she is turned down (“You are a really creepy dude”). This passage is light and fizzy in its downbeat pose. And the AI plotline, a metaphor for the imprisonment of technology and the changes and stages (and bonds) of a relationship, as one partner outgrows another and possessiveness, jealousy, and an inability to move on take hold, mostly succeeds. As such the whys and wherefores of Samantha’s artificial existence don’t bear extensive analysis, beyond what her role says about the way relationships evolve.
It’s probably a consequence of the picture having a relatively straightforward theme that it seems to labour the point at times, or posit elements in a slightly clumsy, on-the-nose, manner. How else to see Theo’s job writing letters for those in relationships who cannot come up with the words themselves? That’s not the invention of someone interested in subtext. Likewise, we won’t undergo thunderstruck realisation when Mara pins down Theo on his OS relationship (“You always wanted a wife without any of the challenges of actually dealing with something real”). And the reconstituted Alan Watts (voiced by Brian Cox), champion of interconnectedness in the face of rampaging technology and the erosion of the natural world, is not subtle. Theo, who is caught in a downward spiral, feels that all that is left is repetition providing diminishing returns. Samantha, who grows and finds new connections (she’s in love with 641 others besides Theo) is moving in an opposite direction. Again, you might feel Jonze is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut with that kind of number, when the message is one that doesn’t change with outward societal advances (“I’m yours and I’m not yours”); the inevitability of different expectations and change within a closed circuit relationship.
The end of the picture promotes a guarded hopefulness, although evidently I wasn’t alone in initially wondering if Theo and Amy Adams’ Amy were heading for a rooftop suicide pact. The girl he has known since university may yet be the one he reconnects with; certainly the final shot, as she leans her head on his shoulder while they look out at the pre-dawn cityscape, is suggestive. Most of the characters at some point or other are used as mouthpieces for sound bites invoking relationship cod-psychology, but Adams has the skill to sell a line about love being a “socially acceptable insanity” and making it not sound too written. Her account of why she and her boyfriend split up has similar touch of the real. Adams also features in a couple of amusing scenes focussing on a “Get the Kids to school” game (Jonze clearly had a blast with these kind of distractions).
I’m not sure Her is destined for classic status; it’s a little too mannered and temporary at the expense of thematic resonacne. But, if the manufactured ennui of Theo occasionally grates (and his contrastingly delirious excursions with Samantha are excruciating), the picture is commendably full of ideas and a desire to discuss them. It deserves its golden statue more than the other nominees for at very least it is trying something different. Jonze doesn’t always succeed, and the supporting performers generally outshine the leads, but he successfully explores the disconnection of the modern world and the limitations of, and pressures on, the dissociative relationships within it. Maybe he just needs to bite the bullet and employ Soderbergh as his regular editor.