Spike Jonze doesn't waste any time introducing us to the technology at the center of Her. "An operating system that can mimic human sentience?" a dangerously lonely Joaquin Phoenix wonders after catching glimpse of an ad in a transit station. "Don't mind if I do!" (He doesn't actually say that, don't worry.) But by the time we're meant to believe that such a world can seamlessly integrate characters like Scarlett Johansson's automated voice Samantha into the lives of living, breathing men and women like Phoenix's Theodore, we're already established residents of this arresting, icy, quivering world the filmmaker has built. We meet Theodore midway through his recitation of a "handwritten letter" he penned on behalf of a woman to her husband of many years. That's his job — tapping into his own unique sensititivies to play ghostwriter for people hoping to adorn their spouses, boyfriends, girlfriends, parents, and children with personal notes of personal affection. Theodore is no independent contractor; he's part of a thriving company, and we almost get the feeling that the folks on the receiving end of these letters are in the know. Before we ever encounter Samantha, we're embedded in the central conceit of the movie: emotional surrogacy is an industry on the rise.
What makes Jonze's world so palatable is that, beneath its marvelously eerie aesthetic, this idea is barely science-fiction. Theodore, humbled and scarred by a recent divorce from lifelong love Catherine (Rooney Mara, who contrasts Johansson by giving a performance that, for a large sum of the movie, is all body and no voice), accesses the will to go on through interractions with video game characters and phone-sex hotlines. But the ante is upped with Samantha, the self-named operating system that Theodore purchases to stave off loneliness, deeming choice a far less contorting one than spending time with old pals like Amy (Amy Adams)... at first.
Samantha evolves rather quickly from an articulate Siri into a curious companion, who is fed and engaged by Theodore just as much as she feeds and engages him. Jonze paces his construction of what, exactly, Samantha is so carefully that we won't even catch the individual steps in her change — along with Theodore, we slowly grow more and more enamored and mystified by his computer/assistant/friend/lover before we can recognize that we're dealing with a different being altogether from the one we met at that inceptive self-aware "H-hello?" But Jonze lays tremendous groundwork to let us know this story is all for something: all the while, as the attractions build and the hearts beat faster for Samantha, we foster an unmistakable sense of doom. We can't help but dread the very same perils that instituted one infamous admission: "I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that."
But Jonze's sci-fi constructs are so cohesively intertwined with his love story that our dread doesn't exactly translate to an anticipation of HAL's hostile takeover. Her wedges us so tightly between Theodore and Samantha that our fears of the inevitable clash between man and machine apprehend a smaller, more intimate ruin. As Samantha's growth become more surprising and challenging to Theodore, to herself, and to us, the omens build for each.
And although all three parties know better, we cannot help but affix ourselves to the chemistry between Theodore and Samantha, and to the possibility that we're building toward something supreme. A good faction of this is due to the unbelievable performances of Phoenix — representing the cautious excitement that we all know so painfully well — and Johansson, who twists her disembodied voice so empathetically that we find ourselves, like Theodore, forgetting that we have yet to actually meet her. The one castigation that we can attach to the casting of Johansson is that such a recognizable face will, inevitably, work its way into our heads when we're listening to her performance. It almost feels like a cheat, although we can guarantee that a performance this good would render a figure just as vivid even if delivered by an unknown.
The best player in the World for movie trailers, Hollywood interviews and movie clips.
In this way, Her is as effective a comment on the healthiest human relationships as it is on those that rope in third parties — be they of the living, automated, or greeting card variety. In fact, the movie has so many things to say that it occasionally steps on its own feet, opening up ideas so grand (and coloring them so brightly) that it sometimes has trouble capping them coherently. Admittedly, if Spike Jonze had an answer to some of the questions he's asking here, he'd probably be suspected of himself being a super-intelligent computer. But in telling the story of a man struggling to understand what it means to be in love, to an operating system or not, Jonze invites us to dissect all of the manic and trying and wonderful and terrifying and incomprehensible elements therein. Just like Samantha, Her doesn't always know what to do with all of its brilliance. But that might be part of why we're so crazy over the both of them.
Follow @Michael Arbeiter
| Follow @Hollywood_com
Psst! Wanna buy an ex-movie star?
Step right in. We have recognizable has-beens to suit your every entertainment need. Looking for the leading-man type? We have great deals on Eric Roberts, Patrick Muldoon, Kiefer Sutherland and Dean Cain. In the market for a tough guy? Take your pick of Ray Liotta, Roy Scheider, Michael Ironside and other fine choices. We have leading ladies, too -- Morgan Fairchild, Jennifer Beals and Ally Sheedy.
What's that? You say these guys are box-office poison? Guess again. Even though they were scratched off the Hollywood A-list a while ago, these names still mean something in places such as Australia, Germany, Italy, Spain and Japan. And if you'd dropped in here at the weeklong American Film Market, or AFM, wrapping up today, you'd realize that being big in the Netherlands might not be glamorous, but it's nothing to sneeze at.
Case in point: Jeff Fahey.
You might remember Fahey from his supporting roles in movies such as "Silverado" and "Wyatt Earp," or maybe even "The Lawnmower Man." But you might not know that Fahey is a certifiable movie star overseas, top-billed in dozens of thrillers and action films (search the Net and you'll find numerous Web sites paying homage to the hard-working actor). Strolling through the hallways of the Loews Hotel, where distributors at the AFM hawk their wares, you'd have seen posters for some of his latest: "The Sculptress," "Blind Heat" (co-starring the venerable Maria Conchita Alonso) and "Epicenter."
"Jeff's got a lot of movies out there right now," says Anthony J. Lyons, vice president of IFM Film Associates, an Aussie company based in Los Angeles that makes movies for $1 million to $3 million. "He's an internationally known actor, and he's not too expensive to get. Rather than charge $200,000 for one movie, he might charge you $50,000, but he'll get 20 movies instead of two. These days you need known actors to sell your films overseas, and Jeff is a good value."
How many times have you heard an actor praised as a "good value?" Money talks at the AFM, and Fahey is a favorite son here because his films fall into those tried-and-true genres (action movies, thrillers, lowbrow comedy, T-and-A, horror/sci-fi) that cross cultural and language barriers. These kinds of movies appeal to the dozens of international distributors who come here each year looking for stuff to buy. Films that will go straight to video or cable TV in the United States (that is, if they are released here at all) but can pull in a nice chunk of change in overseas markets.
The foreign rights to about 350 movies were up for grabs at this year's AFM, and an estimated $400 million in deals were made. Not all the films represented were of the low-budget, guns-and-car-crashes, monsters-and-scantily-clad-babes variety. TFI International was peddling foreign rights to "The Golden Bowl," the forthcoming Merchant-Ivory production starring Uma Thurman and Anjelica Huston; the new Roland Joffe movie "Vatel," with Thurman, Gerard Depardieu and Tim Roth, was also advertised, as was "Brother," the new movie from Japanese director "Beat" Takeshi Kitano.
But it was loads more fun to troll the market for the wreckage of once-thriving acting careers. There was Judge Reinhold from the "Beverly Hills Cop" movies, heading up a slam-bang actioner called "Crackerjack 2: Hostage Train," from North American Releasing. Reinhold plays Jack Wild -- no, not the guy from H.R. Pufnstuf -- a "rogue cop with a mission ... obsessed with capturing the notorious Hans Becker, a '60s-style Red Brigade type who has transformed himself into a '90s-style terrorist for hire," or so says publicity materials from the production. The film co-stars Michael Sarrazin as the bad guy. (Curiously, Reinhold did not appear in "Crackerjack 1," nor is he in the forthcoming "Crackerjack 3." Really.)
Other blasts from the past who have become AFM stalwarts include Steve Guttenberg, who gets the Most Interesting Title award for his directorial debut, "P.S. Your Cat is Dead!" Guttenberg is billed by the film's backers as the "acclaimed star of several billion dollars worth of top box-office and critical winners." Elsewhere, another company was dealing a different Guttenberg film, "Second Chance," a comedy with an all-star lineup of Pauly Shore, Robert Wagner and Tim Conway (no word, however, if Conway did the film in his ever-popular "Dorf" disguise).
If the definition of celebrity is skewed a bit in the films paraded here, the same can be said for the event itself. The American Film Market isn't a film festival -- there are no awards ceremonies, no paparazzi stampedes, and although there are premieres, they don't include big red-carpet entrances for celebrities.
It's not unusual for workaday actors such as Eric Roberts or Gary Busey to show up and do a little press for one of their films here, and they can walk through the hotel without being hassled. And you don't hear about wild antics on the after-hours party scene here. This is about as racy as it gets: One night last week, Jamie Kennedy (the film geek from the "Scream" films) got lost while walking around in search of the buyers' party for "The Specials," his new low-budget superhero comedy -- and he had to ask a bystander for directions.
"I've been to a few festivals before, but I've never been to something quite like this, which is pure marketing," said "Star Trek" actor George Takei, who was here promoting an as-yet unmade sci-fi film, "Overload," made by and starring a crew of former child actors including Tony Dow ("Leave It To Beaver") and Bill Mumy ("Lost in Space"). "But I know what the rules of the game are. I'm here to help sell the movie, which is something I never did with 'Star Trek.'"
If they ever hand out a lifetime achievement award to an actor at the AFM, it should probably go to Karen Black, the veteran of "Five Easy Pieces," "Nashville," "Airport 1975" and other 1970s classics who still works constantly, albeit in the relative obscurity of low-budget offerings, including many titles up for grabs at the market in recent years.
Black does it all -- from children's films ("Malaika," a movie about an elephant), to boring dramas about people over 40 ("The Donor," with David Carradine) and soft-core stuff (such as "Dinosaur Valley Girls," a movie from a few years back, in which she wore a loincloth) -- which makes her a fine role model for some of the other actresses such as Jasmine Guy, Carol Alt and Tahnee Welch following in her footsteps at the market.
"Karen is making a comeback, believe it or not," said Eric Louzil, president of RHG/Lions Share Pictures, which is peddling an independent film called "Oliver Twisted," in which Black stars. "... I've seen her name in quite a few films lately. She's quite a talent."
And at the AFM, a little talent goes a long way.