From now until the Friday before the Oscars we'll be running daily pieces about why a film does or does not deserve Best Picture. Now it's Gabe's turn to fight for Spike Jonze's Her!
The first time I saw Spike Jonze’s Her, nominated for five Academy Awards this year, I was touched by the honest portrayal of loneliness. Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore Trombley wasn’t like his collection of miscreants and misanthropes he had played since his maddening mid-career departure into performance art, but he was still a dynamic, fully-realized person with his own inner life. Within Theodore, I saw someone who was funny, sensitive, kindhearted and a bit of a goof. He was a sweetheart with a circle of friends, a good job, and a successful lifestyle.
And he was crushingly depressed. Movies fall into the trap of using shorthand for depression, featuring a character that has no friends and maladjusted social routines. Here was someone who was normal, even attractive, and yet somehow within a vortex inside his circle of friends, floating in an abyss of disappointment and heartbreak. By the time I got to speak to Mr. Jonze in regards to this depiction, I had once again choked up, thinking about how the film had recreated all those times spent standing on an island in a crowded room, hearing the words of others spoken as if they were in tongues, unable to avoid staring off into the distance as if a door might materialize, offering a way out.
The second time I saw Her, I was compelled by the future depicted in the film. It was an undetermined year, though context clues placed the world decades beyond us, perhaps in the wake of a terrible disaster. Despite the cleanliness of the world and the intriguing fashion sense of its participants, it was a lonely place. Jonze is smart enough to downplay this, but when Trombley basically submits to his Operating System, he’s one of many who spend their entire days looking down at a device, letting the world exist outside of them. This is a world where people can’t even send each other letters; they need to pay someone, like Theodore at Beautifulhandwrittenletters.com, to simulate their voice for them. Sentiment is now considered "heavy lifting."
Of course, where this seems like an extremely pessimistic view of the world, Jonze allows a flower to blossom through the concrete. Humanity makes the selfish decision to plunge into technology head first like a bird hiding in the dirt, but the film locates the human heart that emerges from such a doomed existence. Jonze is a humanist: even in the nightmarish Being John Malkovich, the violent meta-tragedy at the heart of Adaptation and the frustrated rage of Where The Wild Things Are, he manages to reach through the post-millennial cynicism to find the pleasure, the hope within the conceit. Jonze’s future is, on its surface, the sort of hellscape that a snarky New York Magazine-reading hipster would dream up, and yet he finds the laughter, he finds the joy, he finds the perseverance: Theodore, like his similarly tech-dependent friends, is gonna be okay.
The third time I saw the film, I realized I didn’t like Theodore much. I never should have: of course he’s adorable and sweet and sensitive. The obnoxious part is that he knows it. And his O.S. Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) is ultimately a reflection of his narcissism. When his previous partner outgrew him, he sought someone who would appreciate him for who he is, and not the person he could be. He didn’t seek to be tested, but rather flattered. Within Theodore’s characterization lies the film’s critique of the world’s self-love, magnified through a mirror held up by scientific advancement. When a date (Olivia Wilde) attempts to make future plans with him, he freezes up. When he needs to tell a fun story, it’s about a video game he’s playing. When his old Operating System attempts to inform him of major global news, he instead opts to see naked pictures of a model. What keeps this interesting is that Jonze loves and forgives Theodore, and he wants you to do this as well.
I saw Her a couple more times, and each time it was a new movie for me. Jonze’s film is soft but not quiet, funny but not uproariously silly, kind but not sentimental. The score fools you into thinking it’s a romance – it’s really not – with Win Butler and Owen Pallett’s compositions sounding like the waltz you’d perform with a lover at the very end of the world. The film’s production design showcases flat, clear colors, taupe and browns and faint reds imprinting the frame, a visual motif that suggests a future struggling to develop an identity. And this is a world you want to explore, not only through Theodore’s eyes, but also neighbor Amy Adams: there was apparently a considerable subplot involving her harried platonic friend removed from the film that I’d love to see on the DVD.
The year’s other Best Picture nominees seem to operate in All Caps. There’s The Pirate Movie, the Catholicism Movie, The Slave One, The AIDS One. There’s the Con Man Movie, The White Collar Crime Film, The Blockbuster and the Midwest One. But Her seems like the only one of these films addressing many story strands and ideas simultaneously. Spike Jonze experienced it first-hand when discussing it with a testy reporter: the movie means something to everyone, and it’s ultimately impossible to describe, though no two people will try exactly the same way. Is it the best film amongst the nominees? It’s certainly the most layered: start there, and peel each layer back.