Skip to main content

I’m yours and I’m not yours.

Her
(2013)

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.


***1/2

Popular posts from this blog

I’m smarter than a beaver.

Prey (2022) (SPOILERS) If nothing else, I have to respect Dan Trachtenberg’s cynical pragmatism. How do I not only get a project off the ground, but fast-tracked as well? I know, a woke Predator movie! Woke Disney won’t be able to resist! And so, it comes to pass. Luckily for Prey , it gets to bypass cinemas and so the same sorry fate of Lightyear . Less fortunately, it’s a patience-testing snook cocking at historicity (or at least, assumed historicity), in which a young, pint-sized Comanche girl who wishes to hunt and fish – and doubtless shoot to boot – with the big boys gets to take on a Predator and make mincemeat of him. Well, of course , she does. She’s a girl, innit?

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993) (SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

If you ride like lightning, you're going to crash like thunder.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) (SPOILERS) There’s something daringly perverse about the attempt to weave a serious-minded, generation-spanning saga from the hare-brained premise of The Place Beyond the Pines . When he learns he is a daddy, a fairground stunt biker turns bank robber in order to provide for his family. It’s the kind of “only-in-Hollywood” fantasy premise you might expect from a system that unleashed Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and Point Break on the world. But this is an indie-minded movie from the director of the acclaimed Blue Valentine ; it demands respect and earnest appraisal. Unfortunately it never recovers from the abject silliness of the set-up. The picture is littered with piecemeal characters and scenarios. There’s a hope that maybe the big themes will even out the rocky terrain but in the end it’s because of this overreaching ambition that the film ends up so undernourished. The inspiration for the movie

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) (SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron ’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison. Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War , Infinity Wars I & II , Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok . It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions ( Iron Man II ), but there are points in Age of Ultron whe

Death to Bill and Ted!

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) (SPOILERS) The game of how few sequels are actually better than the original is so well worn, it was old when Scream 2 made a major meta thing out of it (and it wasn’t). Bill & Ted Go to Hell , as Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was originally called, is one such, not that Excellent Adventure is anything to be sneezed at, but this one’s more confident, even more playful, more assured and more smartly stupid. And in Peter Hewitt it has a director with a much more overt and fittingly cartoonish style than the amiably pedestrian Stephen Herrick. Evil Bill : First, we totally kill Bill and Ted. Evil Ted : Then we take over their lives. My recollection of the picture’s general consensus was that it surpassed the sleeper hit original, but Rotten Tomatoes’ review aggregator suggests a less universal response. And, while it didn’t rock any oceans at the box office, Bogus Journey and Point Break did quite nicely for Keanu Reev

I think it’s pretty clear whose side the Lord’s on, Barrington.

Monte Carlo or Bust aka  Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969) (SPOILERS) Ken Annakin’s semi-sequel to Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines tends to be rather maligned, usually compared negatively to its more famous predecessor. Which makes me rather wonder if those expressing said opinion have ever taken the time to scrutinise them side by side. Or watch them back to back (which would be more sensible). Because Monte Carlo or Bust is by far the superior movie. Indeed, for all its imperfections and foibles (not least a performance from Tony Curtis requiring a taste for comic ham), I adore it. It’s probably the best wacky race movie there is, simply because each set of competitors, shamelessly exemplifying a different national stereotype (albeit there are two pairs of Brits, and a damsel in distress), are vibrant and cartoonish in the best sense. Albeit, it has to be admitted that, as far as said stereotypes go, Annakin’s home side win

This entire edifice you see around you, built on jute.

Jeeves and Wooster 3.3: Cyril and the Broadway Musical  (aka Introduction on Broadway) Well, that’s a relief. After a couple of middling episodes, the third season bounces right back, and that's despite Bertie continuing his transatlantic trip. Clive Exton once again plunders  Carry On, Jeeves  but this time blends it with a tale from  The Inimitable Jeeves  for the brightest spots, as Cyril Basington-Basington (a sublimely drippy Nicholas Hewetson) pursues his stage career against Aunt Agatha's wishes.

Just because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character.

Pulp Fiction (1994) (SPOILERS) From a UK perspective, Pulp Fiction ’s success seemed like a fait accompli; Reservoir Dogs had gone beyond the mere cult item it was Stateside and impacted mainstream culture itself (hard to believe now that it was once banned on home video); it was a case of Tarantino filling a gap in the market no one knew was there until he drew attention to it (and which quickly became over-saturated with pale imitators subsequently). Where his debut was a grower, Pulp Fiction hit the ground running, an instant critical and commercial success (it won the Palme d’Or four months before its release), only made cooler by being robbed of the Best Picture Oscar by Forrest Gump . And unlike some famously-cited should-have-beens, Tarantino’s masterpiece really did deserve it.

Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.

Paterson (2016) (SPOILERS) Spoiling a movie where nothing much happens is difficult, but I tend to put the tag on in a cautionary sense much of the time. Paterson is Jim Jarmusch at his most inert and ambient but also his most rewardingly meditative. Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver and modest poet living in Paterson, New Jersey, is a stoic in a fundamental sense, and if he has a character arc of any description, which he doesn’t really, it’s the realisation that is what he is. Jarmusch’s picture is absent major conflict or drama; the most significant episodes feature Paterson’s bus breaking down, the English bull terrier Marvin – whom Paterson doesn’t care for but girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) dotes on – destroying his book of poetry, and an altercation at the local bar involving a gun that turns out to be a water pistol. And Paterson takes it all in his stride, genial to the last, even the ruination of his most earnest, devoted work (the only disappoint

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.