Friday, January 10, 2014

her: Character flaws

her (2013) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rating: R, for profanity, sexual candor and brief nudity

By Derrick Bang

Writer/director Spike Jonze’s new fantasy is an intriguing cautionary tale aimed squarely at the narcissistic, self-absorbed millennials who increasingly behave as if social media isn’t merely an acceptable substitute for personal contact, but in fact deserves to become the preferred method of interaction.

After confessing that he may be falling in love with his computer operating system,
Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is surprised when his longtime friend Amy (Amy Adams)
doesn't react with disgust. Indeed, she seems quite okay with the concept...
In that respect, Jonze displays an uncanny instinct for depicting our deeply disturbing near-future, if such conduct continues unchecked along its current path.

Much as I admire the message, however, the delivery system leaves something to be desired. At 126 minutes, this film is self-indulgent to a fault, moving s-l-o-w-l-y to the point of ponderous tedium, en route to a resolution that we can see coming from miles away.

Were Rod Serling alive today, I’ve no doubt he could have turned this premise into a dynamite half-hour installment of his Twilight Zone TV series (assuming placement on HBO or some other pay-cable network, to preserve the essential adult themes). Jonze, taking a much more leisurely approach, drags us for an monotonous ride that had me checking my watch during the entire second hour.

Jonze burst onto the cinema scene with 1999’s Being John Malkovich — which brought him an Academy Award nomination for best director — and has built his subsequent big-screen career on eccentric and downright bizarre relationship dynamics. He most famously teamed with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman for 2002’s Adaptation, the latter insisting on co-crediting that script with his “fictitious twin brother” Donald, both of whom were depicted in the film by Nicolas Cage.

Adaptation was an alternately hilarious and disturbing analysis of the creative process, and Jonze’s new film certainly follows that template. But instead of a fictitious twin, this story’s co-protagonist is the disembodied voice of a computer operating system that possesses intelligence, perception and a capacity for emotional growth.

In other words, the perfect example of artificial intelligence.

The setting is Los Angeles in a “slight future” that is a welcome utopian relief from the Blade Runner-esque hellholes envisioned in too many recent sci-fi films. The overall infrastructure in this vision of Southern California looks and feels familiar, aside for a greater emphasis on towering buildings, and the ambiance is warm, comfortable and embracing. People wear nice clothes, the weather seems ideal, food is plentiful and tasty, and there’s no trace of crime, neglect or poverty.

OK, so maybe it’s a bit soulless ... which is, of course, precisely the point.

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) has a successful career as one of the best scribes employed at, a company that can be hired to ghost-write correspondence for clients unwilling (or unable) to do the job themselves. Offhand remarks indicate that Theodore has been doing this for awhile, since he’s quite familiar with the intimate details of (for example) married clients whose letters he has composed for years.

His letters are beautiful, touching and soulful, every word conveying an emotional intensity that poets would admire.

With respect to his own personal life, however, Theodore is badly damaged goods: deeply depressed over the failure of his marriage to Catherine (Rooney Mara). The  highs and subsequent lows of this relationship are depicted in a series of poignant flashbacks that arrive in short hiccups throughout this film: wordless montages that deftly convey the joyous glow of young love that eventually fades into estrangement and, finally, dissolution.

Clearly, then, Jonze knows how to distil complex narrative details into economical bursts of on-screen action. Too bad he couldn’t do that with this entire film.

Reduced to spending his evenings with immersive computer games, Theodore responds with interest upon learning about a new operating system “personality” that is designed to bond with its user, and then adapt itself into a sort of online companion. Theodore signs up, breezes through a few perfunctory questions and quickly becomes the recipient of an OS that dubs itself — herself — Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).

Why that name, he wonders aloud. Because it felt right, Samantha — Sam — replies.

Indeed, we reflect, burrowing nervously into our theater seats.

At first, Theodore is merely amused and intrigued by the depth of knowledge that Samantha displays: typical light-speed computer processing. Her increased awareness of his moods, however, is something else entirely ... along with her companionable desire to know him better. Quite soon thereafter, Theodore finds that Sam has become a highly desirable friend and, eventually ... even lover.

Which isn’t quite the absurdity that it sounds. Women have imagined themselves into bodice-ripping gothic romances for generations; men have done the same, somewhat more crudely, with explicit magazines and films. All the way back in 1983, director Douglas Trumbull’s Brainstorm played with the notion of the heightened “reality” of an experience not one’s own.

And Jonze’s script quite cleverly depicts the blossoming attachment between Theodore and Sam; we may be encouraged to chuckle, but not because these events are ridiculous. No, they actually seem uneasily probable. After all, if we’ve already made peace with the concept of “sex surrogates” who help people work out their erotic kinks, is it that far-fetched to imagine an attractive young woman (Portia Doubleday) who offers herself “professionally” as the one thing — a physical body — that an OS personality such as Sam lacks?

We can’t help being captivated by these aspects of Jonze’s film; he definitely has his insightful finger on the pulse of everything that’s psychologically disturbing about the social media generation.

And it’s also true, as has been bruited in numerous media stories, that Johansson’s sparkling voice is this film’s most enchanting element. She works an impressive degree of emotional depth into this purely speaking role: We can tell whether Sam is joyous or concerned, giddy or pouting, gently reproachful or playfully sensual. It’s quite a performance.

Frankly, though, Johansson’s work stands out so much because the “real people” in this story behave like sleepwalkers. They move slowly and talk slowly, their expressions changing slowly — if at all — in response to external stimuli. This is the Clint Eastwood School of Acting, where a wealth of emotion theoretically is conveyed by blank stares and long, quiet takes. Doesn’t always work that way.

This is Theodore’s story, and it’s easy to recognize the significance of this character’s anticipated evolution. But Phoenix walks around in a bland daze much of the time, reacting passively even when a situation calls for a stronger emotional response. Granted, yes, this speaks to the moral crux of Jonze’s narrative, but the soporific approach wears thin pretty quickly.

Even the usually effervescent Amy Adams is muted as Theodore’s good (platonic) friend Amy, a budding documentarian whose current project is a lengthy film of herself ... sleeping. Amy is married to the patronizing Charles (Matt Letscher), and we sense that their relationship may not be long for this world.

Chris Pratt co-stars as one of Theodore’s office mates, who has an interesting reaction upon learning that his friend is spending so much time with a computer OS; the always sexy Olivia Wilde pops up as a blind date that Sam encourages Theodore to meet. Listen carefully, and you might recognize the voices of Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, as off-camera chat room participants.

Production designer K.K. Barrett has a lot of fun with the various “slight future” trappings, particularly smaller items such as restaurant menus and next-gen smart gadgets. Conveying the look of a Los Angeles that is “just around the corner,” in Barrett’s own words, was achieved by filming numerous exteriors in Shanghai’s Pudong District, where elevated walkways keep the pedestrian eye-line above the distant hum of unseen vehicles.

The quite varied score comes from the Grammy Award-winning band Arcade Fire and composer Owen Pallett, with an additional (quite significant) contribution by Karen O, one of Jonze’s frequent collaborators. The totality of music is gentle, wistful and richly emotional ... which, unfortunately, often contributes to the film’s increasingly muted tone.

I’m intrigued by this film’s arrival only a few months after Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon. Both stories involve young men looking for love in all the wrong places: wrong places that ironically both center around Scarlett Johansson. Both films waste far too much time reaching their blindingly obvious conclusions, albeit from different artistic directions: Gordon-Levitt’s style was relentlessly in-your-face, while Jonze prefers the slow burn of a somnambulant pace.

Both approaches are flawed, for essentially the same reason: insufficient emotional “truth” on which to hang our interest.

Johansson’s public visibility may grant this film a greater percentage of mainstream viewers than ordinarily would have noticed it, which on the surface is a good thing; it would be wonderful if millennials recognized themselves on the screen, and modified their behavior accordingly. But Jonze takes much too long to wander toward the obvious fairy-tale resolution, by which time many folks may have fallen asleep.

Probably not the desired response.

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