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
Where the Wild Things Are director Spike Jonze’s (Being John Malkovich Adaptation) ambitious adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book has been referred to variously as “experimental” and “art-house” — and only occasionally in a derisive manner — by numerous movie critics and journalists. For all of their negative box-office implications the labels do come with certain benefits the most important of which is a little-known loophole in the filmmaking code that renders certain films largely exempt from standard rules of story structure to which more orthodox films are expected to adhere.
That is they’re expected to have a structure. Where the Wild Things Are is above such trifles. Sendak’s source material with its 10 lines of text is largely devoid of any real storyline so the task fell to Jonze and his co-writer Dave Eggers to manufacture one. Given essentially a blank slate with which to work they used the opportunity to explore the id of a child reeling from the painful aftermath of divorce. And what a mind-bending journey it is.
Newcomer Max Records stars as Max a rambunctious young boy with a taste for mischief and an overabundance of energy. It’s a volatile combination if left unchecked and it eventually erupts in disastrous fashion one evening when Max’s exasperated overworked mother (played by Catherine Keener) has the audacity to invite her boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo on screen for all of a nanosecond) over for dinner.
Confronted by the alarming sight of his mother sneaking a kiss with a man who clearly isn’t his dad Max acts out in hideous fashion prompting a similarly hideous overreaction from his mortified mom. Stung by her harsh words Max makes a break for it running away to a wooded sanctuary on the bank of a river where he climbs aboard an unattended sailboat and is transported to a strange and distant land.
It’s there that he meets the titular Wild Things a close-knit if highly dysfunctional group of furry gargantuan beings with oversized heads and normal unaltered human voices. There are seven in all: sensitive temperamental Carol (James Gandolfini); amiable level-headed Douglas (Chris Cooper); skeptical smart-alecky Judith (Catherine O’Hara); patient avuncular Ira (Forest Whitaker); meek insecure Alexander (Paul Dano); tender affectionate KW (Lauren Ambrose); and mysterious intimidating Bull (Michael Berry Jr.).
And that’s it. There’s no villain to be found in Where the Wild Things Are. (At least not a tangible one anyway. I suppose “society” or “fear” might be considered among Max’s antagonists; then again “fear” may also have been Gandolfini’s character. I can’t remember.)
Together Max and his new companions play games destroy trees build forts and bicker — to what end it’s never exactly clear. As Max frolics about his imaginary world with his crew of overgrown H.R. Pufnstuf rejects each of whom is meant to symbolize an emotion of some kind it becomes increasingly apparent that there’s no real point to the proceedings.
Which is why there’s no resolution to Where the Wild Things Are either. And shame on you for expecting one. If you want a neat and tidy resolution go see Couples Retreat or some other “mainstream” release philistine. This is Spike Jonze’s playground and if you dare subject him to rules or limits of any kind he may just pick up his genius ball and go home.
The real brilliance of Where the Wild Things Are is how its director aided by the extraordinary work of cinematographer Lance Acord and his production design team is able to plug directly into the amygdalae of adults of a certain age and background effectively disabling their capacities for critical thinking. It could be the greatest Jackass prank Jonze has ever pulled.
Where the Wild Things Are is not a movie for kids and not because it’s particularly violent or scary — indeed it’s downright tame compared to the last Harry Potter flick. Children by definition aren’t nearly as susceptible to the film's naked appeals to nostalgia and as parents’ eyes well up while they watch it behind rose-colored lenses their offspring will be texting “WTF?” to their similarly bored friends as the film meanders toward its disappointing conclusion.
Freud on the other hand would absolutely adore Where the Wild Things Are particularly during its climactic sequence in which Max frantically fleeing a rampaging Carol literally leaps into KW's gooey womb which presumably represents the comfort and safety of a mother’s unconditional love. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if several years from now the movie becomes a fixture at child psychologists’ offices serving as a sort of multimedia Rorschach test to help therapists better understand their young patients. But that’s pretty much the extent of the film’s utility.
Here’s the real symbolism inherent in Where the Wild Things Are: Max symbolizes Jonze while the mother represents the director’s expectations for the audience. After Jonze runs off and blithely plays with our emotions for a few desultory hours giving us only ambiguity tinged with melancholy in return he expects us to reward him with a loving embrace and a hot bowl of soup.
It’s all rather childish.
Cooked up in the head of Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) comes the movie in which he makes his directorial debut. Without Michel Gondry or Spike Jonze sifting through the maze this time Kaufman himself weaves this crazy quilt with consummate skill. In other words Synecdoche New York is just as successfully quirky humane and head scratching as all the others in the Kaufman ouerve. To sum up the plot succinctly is impossible but it centers on a stage director and hypochondriac Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who trades in his suburban life with wife Adele (Catherine Keener) daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein) and regional theatrical work in Schenectady for a chance at Broadway. He puts together a cast (resembling those in his own dream world) and brings them to a Manhattan warehouse being designed as a replica of the city outside. As the world he is creating inside these walls expands so does the focus of his own life and relationships. As the years literally fly by he gets deeper into his theatrical self which soon starts to merge with his own increasingly pathetic reality. Whatever you make of the tale Kaufman is telling here the casting could not be better or more suited to the quirky material. Philip Seymour Hoffman offers up a tour-de-force and is simply superb playing all the tics and foibles of the deeply disturbed Caden. His early scenes in his “normal” home are wonderfully alive with all his phobias and hypochondria in view. Later we literally watch this man disintegrate as his master creation overwhelms him. Hoffman seems to fully understand the mental trauma of a man running as far from his own realities as he possibly can. Catherine Keener as always is right on target as his wife Adele. She has a knack for taking what seems like tiny moments and making them define exactly who this woman is. Jennifer Jason Leigh as a mentor to Caden’s daughter is always fascinating to watch and plays Maria with an ounce of irony. Tom Noonan playing the actor portraying Caden in the play is the perfect doppelganger and delightfully adds to Caden’s confused state. The all-pro trio of Michelle Williams as Caden’s new wife Claire; Samantha Morton as the irresistible assistant Hazel; and Hope Davis as Caden’s self-absorbed therapist add greatly to the merry mix. It’s nice to watch Charlie Kaufman seize control of his own work. In this instance he’s really the only one who can deliver us his Fellini-esque vision. Centering it all on the theatrical director’s weird universe Synecdoche does seem like it might be Kaufman’s own take on Fellini’s 8 ½ or even Woody Allen’s paean to that film Stardust Memories. Let’s just say we know most of it must exist somewhere inside Kaufman. Early domestic scenes could have been played flat but the novice director moves the camera around skillfully enough to make us immediately engaged in Caden’s world. Second half of the film set in the phantasmagoric warehouse is a stunning tapestry of scenes from Kaufman’s singularly fertile imagination. It’s nice to note he’s well equipped with the basic tools a director needs for this type of challenging material. Overall his film is a surprising confounding visual feast -- a dream/nightmare come to life and then spinning out of control.