Movie Review: “Her” (Spike Jonze, USA 2013)

Spike Jonze has built a career on making films with odd basic concepts. Sometimes, like Adaptation. (USA 2002), he’s able to make the film work within its own weirdness, finding a good thread to follow throughout and having just enough of a visual imagination to keep things interesting. Other times, like Being John Malkovich (USA 1999), he has trusted the weirdness of the concept to carry an otherwise completely uninteresting film. In either case, the unusualness of the plot has typically been enough to receive attention and praise aplenty, meaning that even the very strong reviews for Her left me wondering what to expect from the film. Would it be another interesting-if-uneven work or perhaps even better or would it be another pointless exercise in weirdness?

Unfortunately, I think the film is closer to the latter than the former, and the praise it is receiving is almost entirely about its basic plot and Joaquin Phoenix’s strong (if one-dimensional) lead performance.

The film tells the story of a lonely divorced writer, Theodore Twombly, developing a romantic relationship with the operating system he has just installed on his home computer. Twombly’s relationship with the OS ebbs and flows just like a human-to-human relationship and he struggles with and eventually accepts both the idea of having such a relationship and the idea of revealing such a relationship to the world. The problem is that the film doesn’t really have a point. Instead, it’s attempting to explore the nature of love, a concept that is far too large and complex for a film, and that the film seems to be attempting to explore in the most shallow way possible. It’s only interested in exploring whether it is possible for a human to have a relationship with an operating system that is a “real” romantic relationship, not in examining any of the more specific issues that would need to be explored in order to make that determination. As a result, the film really ends up as rather a pointless mess that is only concerned with advancing its silly plot and not with making any deeper point.

That said, the film does what it sets up to do reasonably well. The relationship between Theodore and Samantha is complex, realistic, and nuanced. The characters are well-drawn, especially Theodore himself. As an emotionally drained loser, Theodore makes his living as a writer of personal letters for other people who apparently cannot be bothered to write their own letters. It’s a perfect and quick explanation of who he is and the world that this film inhabits: one where people fake their own relationships, making a loving relationship with a “fake person” is understandable. Even minor characters like Theodore’s blind date whom his friends send him to meet and his boss are interesting, rounded characters, an achievement that few films could boast in only two hours.

It also boasts some clever jokes, like the phone sex partner who wants Theodore to choke her with the dead cat by the bed (and more importantly his strained reaction to her request). However, it is also perfectly willing to be so broad in its humor that it loses me, as with the virtual reality character who swears at Theodore and flips him off and apparently it is hilarious because it’s a cute little cartoon doing that.

Unfortunately, Jonze and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema display little visual imagination. It’s a standard cyan-orange color scheme without any particularly interesting shadows or lights happening anywhere. The film uses cooler colors for more emotionally detached scenes and warmer colors for more tender scenes, which is decent enough technique but nothing special. There is nothing awful about the visual aspect of the film, but it’s not actually interesting either, which limits how good of a film it can really be.

The acting is excellent across the board, but it’s also excellent in part because the deeper characters don’t get much screen time while those who get more screen time are much more shallow, as best exemplified by Theodore. Theodore is, quite simply, a sad sack. There just isn’t much for Joaquin Phoenix to do with the part, though he deserves credit for how well he plays this downtrodden person. His part is essentially a watered-down version of William H. Macy’s part from The Cooler (Wayne Kramer, USA 2003), and he does everything he needs to do. It’s just that what he needs to do is not as complex or interesting as one would like from a truly great performance.

It should also be noted that Owen Pallett’s score was a rather annoying, obtrusive presence throughout the film. Some moments, like the cascading obviousness of Samantha’s piano lines in her songs, work well for the film, but those are unfortunately the exception rather than the rule.

All told, Her is an average film. It has an interesting concept, some nicely written characters, and great acting, but that’s where its strengths end. It’s okay for a single watch, but nothing more than that.

Notes

  • I do wonder a bit when this film is supposed to be set. The technology of OS1 is clearly well beyond the capabilities of humanity today–Samantha would easily pass the Turing test. High technology also seems to be ubiquitous, even more so than it is today, and there seems to be no shortage of nonstop, perfect internet connections and wireless transmitters of various types. But there aren’t flying cars or self-fitting clothing or anything, so is it supposed to be the near future? Or is Jonze just taking some major poetic license with the limits of current technology? (Or are we not supposed to think about that?)
  • Why didn’t Scarlett Johansson play the sex surrogate? That would have been hilarious.
  • Chris Pratt has always been a big guy but holy crap his arms were huge. They were bigger around than Joaquin Phoenix’s head. He must have already been training for his superhero movie.
  • Making Amy Adams a blonde is a crime. Spike Jonze is now in my prison.
  • I’m terrified to look it up, but places like where Theodore works don’t exist, do they? They probably do . . .

Movie Review: “Before Sunrise” (Richard Linklater, USA/Austria/Switzerland 1995)

Perhaps Woody Allen’s most celebrated film is Manhattan (USA 1979), a film I have never considered any more than decent and certainly nowhere near the heights Allen has scaled in films like Annie Hall (USA 1977) and The Purple Rose of Cairo (USA 1985). Its most celebrated sequence is a truly beautiful sequence of Allen and Diane Keaton falling in love in front of the river. The sequence’s genius is not in the always-excellent dialogue or Allen’s and Keaton’s pitch-perfect performances. The genius is in Allen’s ability to tell an entire love story in just a few minutes, and to do it largely visually–allowing the Prince of Darkness to tell the story with his lighting just as much as Allen and co-writer Marshall Brickman do in the script. Before Sunrise very much feels like a two-hour version of that scene done by a director who wanted everyone to know how good of a writer he is and didn’t have Gordon Willis.

The film is quite a simple love story, told over a single night as two tourists, one from the United States and one from France, meet on a train to Vienna and decide to spend the night together. It’s filled with existential angst, literary references, and jokes and exchanges lifted directly from Woody Allen (adding to the feeling that it was that brilliant Manhattan scene stretched out beyond reason), but the film is ultimately nothing more or less than a love story.

The first big problem is that it doesn’t have a point to make while telling its love story. Instead, Linklater and co-screenwriter Kim Krizan rely on the supposed universality of the story to carry the film. (I do feel compelled to point out that this idea that all Americans know what it’s like to go tour Europe and fall in love is extraordinarily pretentious and reeks of upper class privilege. It reminds me of lawyers I met during law school who would ask about when the last time I went to Europe was, not being able to fathom that some people don’t have the money to do that.) If you’re going to do that, using a love story is probably the best way, but it’s a much better idea just to have something to say about love instead of telling a story, just like everything else. There is absolutely nothing that ties the film together other than the narrative, and that’s a problem for any film.

Visually, Linklater and cinematographer Lee Daniel do very little with this film. First, they play with focus, keeping a shallow focus so that the lead characters remain in focus while the backdrops melt into fuzz until they start paying attention to something in the background and then using a deeper focus. It’s a fine but not really exciting technique. Then, they constantly return to shots of trains passing by either alone or in pairs depending on where in the story we are. This technique is rather annoying, as it is so ham-fisted as to be laughable. You really needed that to tell us what was going on between these two people? It’s all that’s happening! If the film actually had a point, some sort of metaphorical recurring shot like that could be forgiven in spite of its inherent pretentiousness, but it doesn’t, so it can’t.

Acting-wise, the film is actually quite strong. Julie Delpy plays a rather dull character with some thought and depth that makes her work far better than she should have from the writing, giving us a far deeper understanding of who Celine is than Linklater bothers to give us anywhere else. Ethan Hawke, meanwhile, is given a much better drawn character and plays it well–he’s a lonely, damaged, weakened guy and we can see all of that before he tells us anything, with his odd winks and stares and inability to hold himself upright when nobody is looking.

In the end, this film is a great example of the type of film that impresses neophytes and does nothing at all for me: it has some good dialogue, excellent acting, and an easily understandable and relatable story, but it has no point and does nothing visually. Ripping off Woody Allen is not a bad idea, as Rob Reiner can tell you, but borrowing bits and pieces of Woody Allen and completely missing what makes his best work special is not just a bad idea but is completely awful and unwatchable. This film does not work because Linklater is borrowing without understanding what makes what he’s emulating work.

Richard Linklater has been one of those people whom the internet has tried to convince the world is a genius without much evidence, hanging its hat on this film as the ultimate evidence whenever someone is skeptical of the “greatness” of the thoroughly mediocre The School of Rock (USA/Germany 2003). After watching this one, I’m pretty much convinced that Linklater is a capable writer who hasn’t got a visually creative bone in his body. It’s a film not worth watching, particularly when you can watch Gordon Willis and Woody Allen do it better in about a tenth of the time.