Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Malfunction: Spike Jonze’s Her

Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson (on table) in Her

He’s only directed four features in all since his 1999 debut with the startling and brilliant Being John Malkovich. But nothing in Spike Jonze’s oeuvre, which also includes the clever and witty Adaptation (2002) and the moving Where the Wild Things Are (2009), prepared me for his latest film, Her (2013), a failure on pretty much every level but also a science fiction movie singularly lacking in originality, thought or vision. Considering it’s Jonze's solo debut as a screenwriter, he may want to consider letting others write his movies for him. He certainly displays no facility for crafting screenplays on his own that entice and reward the viewer.

Set in the near future, Her revolves around one Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Pheonix), an introverted man still reeling from the breakup of his marriage to his childhood sweetheart Catherine (Rooney Mara). He spends his days in a job that involves writing love letters for people who lack the facility or time to do so but he is lonely himself, resorting to Internet porn to get through his nights. But one day, he’s told about a new invention, a particularly intelligent Operating System (OS) that is all the rage. He buys one and soon the OS (voiced by Scarlett Johansson, Don Jon), who has chosen her own name, Samantha, becomes a permanent fixture in his life, first as a friend and then as something much more, a girlfriend with whom he falls deeply in love. It’s not the worst idea for a movie but it’s also not the revelatory concept Jonze and many critics – the film has (inexplicably) received its share of awards, including being picked best movie of 2013 by the National Board of Review – seem to think it is.

The idea of an artificial intelligence wanting to understand what it means to be human or desiring to feel human itself has a long pedigree, ranging from Isaac Asimov’s “robot’ novels (I, Robot (1950), The Caves of Steel (1953) and three others) to the robots in films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Silent Running (1972), through to the android Data (Brent Spiner) on TV’s Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94) and the evil human-like Cylons on the re-worked television show Battlestar Galactica (2004-09). So what fresh angle on the subject does Jonze bring to the table? Not much, I’m afraid. Her ultimately comes across as just another love story, and not a particularly enthralling one at that.

Theodore chatting with Samantha
Much of the movie’s emotional flatness can be laid at the door of Phoenix, who while not overacting as he did in his last movie, Paul Thomas Anderson’s wretched The Master, doesn’t make much of an effort to bring Theodore to cinematic life. Jonze certainly doesn’t get a real performance out of him. Lazy is the operative word for his acting. It’s all the more galling because Johansson's Samantha is a delight, a smart, sexy, challenging character who makes you want to visualize her as a flesh and blood human being, instead of seeing her as the small mechanical device she actually is. In other words, it’s very easy to see why Theodore falls so hard for Samantha but difficult to fathom what she sees in the guy, who’s more than a bit of a jerk. When Theodore logs on to his pornographic web site – the technology in the film’s future is all driven by voice commands – his manner suggests a callow, embarrassed young boy entering forbidden territory, not a mature human being trying to find a way to satiate his sexual desires. (It would have been impressive if Jonze had had the guts to state that pornography can be beneficial for someone like Theodore but his view on the subject is more than a little judgmental, if not puritanical.) That sniggering tone permeates most of the film’s forays into sex, including the first 'consummation' of Theodore and Samantha, which comes across as both cliché and silly. There’s also a juvenile component to the film’s use of explicit language, manifested by a cute animated character’s foul mouthed uttering whenever Theodore logs into his favourite video game.

The movie also falters in so many ways in its unimaginative depiction of the future, a common failing in most Hollywood movies. In Her’s projected Los Angeles, most people walk instead of drive. But as the movie does not postulate a severe oil crisis, or an electromagnetic pulse which has wiped out our technology, Her could not have unfolded as it does. There’s no real reason given as to this unusual state of affairs. It’s L.A., for God’s sake. If people have largely stopped driving there, I want to know why. Similarly, no one, save for Catherine, who is logically threatened by Theodore’s relationship with Samantha, seems to have a problem with Theodore’s involvement with his computer. There’s none of the ambivalence towards this new technology that most people feel with the Internet, even those younger folk who immerse themselves in it for huge chunks of their day. Mind you, Jonze’s postulation that almost everyone has an OS in their life could have explained that accepting attitude if he hadn’t so botched the scene where Theodore becomes aware of how rampant their presence in human society has become. Most of Her, in fact, is so clunkily directed and sloppily framed that it’s hard to believe Jonze is not a neophyte filmmaker making his debut here. (Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography is also, annoyingly, visually drab.) I’m also not sure that letter writing would be making a comeback, like vinyl, as it does in the movie, at least not to the extent that a whole business, with many employees, would be formed around that profession.

Amy Adams in Her

Finally, Her falters because Jonze’s point of view lacks clarity and substance. Is the movie a cautionary tale, a satire (most of the characters in the movie are mockingly portrayed), or a (predictable) love story, or all three rolled into one? Beats me. During the film, I kept thinking about how Jonze could have benefited from the involvement of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, the brains behind the uniqueness of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, and how their collaboration would have also tempered Kaufman’s’ excesses, which were perfectly on display in his messy directorial debut Synecdoche, New York (2008). Alas, Kaufman is nowhere in sight, and Her never makes much of a lasting impression, except in the negative. If not for Johannson and Amy Adams (American Hustle), underused as Theodore’s friend and ex-lover, there would be nothing of value in the movie at all. (Even Arcade Fire’s dull, derivate score adds little to Her; but then again, on the basis of their work on this movie and their last double CD, the uninspired, forgettable Reflektor (2013), their creative juices seem to have run dry.)

The film’s faults are all the more glaring when stacked up against 2013’s truly complex, adult and nuanced love stories, notably Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color and Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight. Compared to those superb movies, Her is just so much silly kid’s stuff.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he just finished teaching a course on acting archetypes. Starting Monday, January 20 to March 17 from 7-9pm, Shlomo examines the work and career of Steven Spielberg (Defining Greatness) at the Miles Nadal JCC at Spadina and Bloor.

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