Some of the best movies come from filmmakers on the rebound from a flop.
After years of struggling to finish his labor of love, the idiosyncratic Maurice Sendak adaptation "Where the Wild Things Are," Spike Jonze has returned with a vengeance, for the first time writing as well as directing the story of a man on the rebound from a failed marriage. "Her" can be viewed as the flip side of Sofia Coppola's Oscar-winning movie about the end of their relationship, "Lost in Translation," a visual/aural tone poem that followed lonely, disconnected Scarlett Johannson around modern Tokyo, as she finds a soulmate with whom she can never truly mate.
Jonze also puts Johannson front and center in this fractured future vision of a city, mostly shot in downtown Los Angeles. (This film reminds me of the way Jean-Luc Godard shot sci-fi film "Alphaville" in Paris, another movie with a computer voice at its center.) She plays sultry, brilliant OS 1 system Samantha, who "bonds" immediately with Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix). He soon relies on her to remind him of upcoming appointments and incoming emails from his ex-wife's divorce lawyer, throw out old emails, and proofread the letters he writes for a living. He takes her on walks to the beach, and goes to sleep as she whispers sweet nothings into his ear bud.
Soon their intimacies progress to the bedroom. Their sex is satisfyingly erotic, and their relationship believable. (After all, we talk to Siri and our GPS systems: this progression feels plausible.) Theodore falls swiftly in love with Samantha. It seems that this is not unusual: as people become increasingly close to their operating systems, more are taking the relationship to the next level. It's described in the film as "a form of socially acceptable insanity."
As Jonze wrote the script, he wondered: what if you replaced a real woman with a virtual woman? What if our urge to connect through technology prevents us from connecting? "The movie to me is about our desire and need to connect, separate togetherness," he told filmmaker Kelly Reichardt at the TIFF Q & A accompanying footage from the film. "It is a big idea, how quickly technology has changed our lives, the internet and global technology... I am also trying to make a relationship movie and love story that examines relationships and love... and the way we have technology be part of that story." In the movie Theodore says, "You feel real to me, Samantha." She feels real to us too.
The movie is a well-constructed, engaging narrative, even though many of the scenes involve a guy talking to a voice in his head. Jonze had co-written "Where the Wild Things Are" with Dave Eggers, and learned a lot from his collaborations with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman ("Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation"), whose "Synecdoche New York" inspired him to put everything he was thinking about into a script: "I tried to do that in this movie, my contradictory feelings about relationships and technology." When iPhone's Siri came out after he was writing, he said, "that sucks." But "it didn't matter, because it was inevitable. This is so different than Siri." The film grapples with some of the issues Ridley Scott confronted in "Blade Runner," about what it means to have consciousness, whether human or not.
As he edited "Her," said Jonze, "I wanted it to feel like an effortless flow of characters and stories." The movie co-stars Amy Adams as his pal, a videogame developer, and Rooney Mara as his ex-wife. Before every movie he spends weeks in rehearsals with the actors talking about movies, their lives, the things the movie is about: "It helps get everyone comfortable with each other."
Jonze put three years on this fourth feature, one year on the screenplay, and 14 months in the editing room. ("Her" was financed by Megan Ellison's Annapurna.) It was "a relentless process" he said. "I don't know what I'm making, I find it along the way." During filming, Samantha Morton played the voice of the OS. But in post-production Jonze recast the voice with Johansson. "In post I was realizing that what Sam and I had done wasn't working with where the movie was going," he said. "She's in the DNA, she was with us when we shot it. Every movie has these things, it's evolving and finding the movie. This movie has its own set of rules, you don't know what they are when you're making it." (Morton is reduced to an associate producer credit.)
The filmmaker's lengthy resume of music videos includes Arcade Fire, who supply a sumptuously rich soundtrack and some piano solos which are composed and performed by the OS in the film. On "Her" Jonze brought in a new cinematographer, as his friend and regular D.P. Lance Accord was moving on to direct his own movie. This film is gorgeously lensed by Hoyte Van Hoytema ("Let the Right One In," "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," "The Fighter"). The film's design palette by KK Barrett is clean, crisp, and modern with bold swatches of bright colors, especially red and yellow. And costume designer Casey Storm takes fashion into the future, where the men wear high-waisted pants that even David Lynch could love.
The finished Warner Bros. release closed the New York Film Festival to good reviews (Indiewire here, Variety here) on October 12 before hitting theaters on November 20. This film is a likely box office hit that will play well for a wide age range, and could also register for Academy voters.