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 . . .
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Movie Review: “The Master” (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA 2012)

A note: I need to polish up the last few “Breaking Bad” reviews, so I sneaked in a couple of others. This one is a repost of a review I wrote on Facebook back when the film first came out.

Paul Thomas Anderson is still probably best known for his film Magnolia (USA 1999), a film with essentially nothing to say that was only watchable at all for Tom Cruise’s performance and Julianne Moore looking like Julianne Moore that captured the public’s imagination because of its ridiculous frog-raining and the simple technique of parallel editing that for some reason convinces the public that films are “deep.” He’s been something of a popular critics’ darling, much the same as Wes Anderson (I always confuse the two of them.) and Ang Lee. Like those directors, he has fared far worse with the more academically-minded critics, but has become highly thought of by the public because of consistent Oscar success anyway.

However, Anderson’s most recent film is supposedly (as far as I know, he is not explicitly denying this, but of course he will not say it) based on L. Ron Hubbard and his founding of the “Church of Scientology.” I couldn’t ignore something like that, especially when he gets such a great pair of lead actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix. (The latter of whose career has been distressingly slow to recover from the marketing stunt-gone-bad surrounding I’m Still Here [Casey Affleck, USA 2010], seemingly from people who refuse to believe that it was marketing. That’s just stupid.)

However, while Anderson’s lead character, Lancaster Dodd, is similar to Hubbard, he really isn’t him. This guy is charismatic (Which is a word I would not have suggested fit Philip Seymour Hoffman before, a tribute to his performance.) and, while he definitely shows a propensity toward anger when questioned, he is a calm, reasonable sort of character the rest of the time, except that he is spouting a remarkable amount of nonsense. He’s more the traditional archetype of the cult leader than Hubbard was, which is a bit less interesting.

The lead character is really Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell: a severely scarred war veteran with extreme anger issues who ends up running into Dodd, who takes it as his personal mission to “fix” Freddie’s mental health issues instead of sending Freddie to a professional (however, oddly, none of Hubbard’s famous vitriol at psychology/psychiatry made its way into the film). Phoenix’s performance was really difficult to judge, because he was playing the broken man with some severe physical issues (inability to move one side of his face being the most obvious) that were never explained and he spent the entire film just angry and horny–there wasn’t anything else to him. Needless to say, Dodd’s methods don’t work, which is oddly the entire point of the film.

And that’s where everything really falls apart: the entire point of the film is that Scientology doesn’t fix mental health problems. Really. That’s all Anderson has to say. It’s not impossible to make a film about someone’s inability to change that works extraordinarily well, see In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, USA 1950), but it doesn’t work when you just show us the same exact scene of the guy breaking down repeatedly and go out of your way to ensure that we have no sympathy for him. However, Anderson doesn’t bother with the depth and nuance of In a Lonely Place. His film is about an angry, horny drunk who spends years following around a cult leader who doesn’t fix him and he shows us Freddie “falling off the wagon,” so to speak, in the same way every time. While there’s certainly a logic to this idea, it’s plain boring.

Visually, the film looks excellent but not original. It was shot in 70 mm (I think that makes it the first film released in the US to be shot in 70 mm since Hamlet [Kenneth Branagh, UK/USA 1996].), which means that it is as sharp and vibrant as films come. However, there’s simply nothing unconventional about it. The only thing that really stood out visually was the very slow editing, appropriate for a story that’s basically about two guys talking over a long period of time.

Hoffman is, as always, fantastic. He makes a much more credible cult leader than Hubbard did in reality. I don’t know what to make of Phoenix. The only other person with significant screen time is Amy Adams, who handles her very simple part well enough but of course doesn’t have to do anything.

Johnny Greenwood’s score is quite excellent, which is not an easy task when it’s stuck trying to make sense of such a dull, repetitive movie with no point.

This was a failure of a film, one that’s getting by on its “scandalous” origins as a film based on Hubbard and a fantastic performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman. (Can we please stop being shocked every time he’s great? Seriously, people keep acting like he’s some sort of new revelation in every role just because he’s not good looking enough to be a major star.) It really isn’t worth watching, which is a shame for a subject that could make a good film.