Friday, January 10, 2014

Jonze's "her" / connection: "Harold & Maude"

Credit: Rick Howard Company LLC/Warner Bros. Pictures 

Spike Jonze’s singular “her” is a woozy fantasy/nightmare in which an isolated, seemingly computer-generated voice named Samantha seduces a mild-mannered Joaquin Phoenix, taking over his life in much the same unhurried, insidious way that the system HAL ruthlessly overwhelms the two astronauts in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968).

Shot in Los Angeles (but abetted by Shanghai to give it a futuristic look), "her" also has its way with its audience, thanks to the pervasive sunniness caught by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and the hallucinatory soft pastel colors favored by the film's invaluable visual design team.  That would be production designer K.K. Barrett, art director Austin Gorg, set decorator Gene Serdena and particularly Casey Storm, Jonze's house costume designer who has dressed the cast in cutting-edge fashions.

The look of this film goes way beyond trendy.

So does its plot, even though, in many ways, it recalls Hal Ashby's equally iconoclastic romance, "Harold & Maude" (1971), in its offbeat, oddball consideration of what constitutes attraction and love. 

Much like Bud Cort's Harold Chasen, Phoenix's Theodore Twombly is  "poetically melancholic" (as ideally put by Manhola Dargis in her New York Times review), rather blissfully nursing the pangs of a broken marriage (to Rooney Mara) while expressing his hurt through the swoony "personal" letters that he writes for other people in his curious professional life for, yes, an on-line service called

Holed up in a spacious, handsome apartment, minimally decorated, and with a best friend (Amy Adams) who makes nifty animations and documentaries, Theodore is decidedly cut off from reality by privilege.

Enter Samantha, the self-named Operating System made for someone who is clearly as acquisitive as Theodore.  It's his latest toy. Scarlett Johansson voices Samantha and her contribution to the film is crucial because as she speaks, we imagine Johansson and better appreciate her seduction of Theodore and how he can be so easily bewitched. 

Just as scenarist Colin Higgins made the noncomformist relationship of Harold and Maude palatable, Jonze brings a natural charm to the atypical courtship here, as Samantha makes herself invaluable to Theodore, tidying up the events in his life and then acting as matchmaker for her lovelorn employer before taking things even further, romantically and emotionally.

"her" is "Harold and Maude" for Millennials.

Much has been written/said about Robert Redford's solo turn in "All Is Lost," but far too little to date about Phoenix's veritable one-man-show here.  In retrospect, Redford had it easy; Phoenix, on the other hand, has dialogue, and plenty of it, that he essentially speaks into air, but with just the right vocal inflections and facial expressions.  It's a performance that must have taken a lot of focused concentration and imagination.  The actor and the character are a perfect fit.  Phoenix has nurtured a persona of strangeness for years now - bugginess is his norm - and Jonze shrewdly showcases/exploits/capitalizes on it. Bottom line: He's incredible.

One of the treats of "her" is the uncredited vocal support that dots the film.  Bill Hader and Brian Cox provide two of the voices, but the funniest bits come from Jonze himself, who does the voice of a foul-mouthed alien child in a video game that Theodore plays, and Kristin Wiig, who plays a computer-sex date who wants Theodore to strangle her with a dead cat.

Don't ask.

Just see the movie.  It's marginal, yes.  It's a little freaky, maybe.

But those are reasons to go.

Note in Passing: Hal Ashby has been credited with being their inspiration by such filmmakers as Wes Anderson and Alexander Payne.  By all appearances, Jonze is part of that crowd.  There are moments in his film that seem to quote "Harold & Maude," such as the movie's fade-out scene which is identical to the moment from "Harold & Maude" below.
Credit: Paramount Pictures


Mel said...

Thank you for your insightful reviews, Mr. Baltake. In this case, I'm happy to read that the cinema of Spike Jonze provokes comparisons with Hal Ashby. High praise, indeed.

s.t. dunn said...

You really nailed this movie, although I'd describe it as "Harold and Maude"-meets-neorealism.

Brian said...

When I saw both HAROD & MAUDE as a teen, I was oddly fascinated by it and ended up seeing it again and again. Umpteen multiple viewings. The fim means a lot to me, so I can't wait to see HER. I'll weigh in again when I see it.

Shawn said...

I love that "her" is so topsy turvy and certainly unbalanced. And, I agree, Phoenix is remarkable. His strangeness, as you say, made him essential to the film. I can imagine no one else playing this role.

rv2754 said...

The most impressive thing about Ashby's work is his focus on characters who are incapable of change, and have no discernible narrative trajectory. I think you can say the same thing about the lead character in "her."

Tom said...

Beg to differ. It’s an ambitious movie, I’ll give you that; but very slow going and at times awkward, and I was definitely put off by all the close-ups of Joaquin Phoenix with his cheesy mustache and hideous clothes.

joe baltake said...

Tom! How is his mustache cheesy? It's a perfectly fine bit of facial hair, rather ordinary and inoffensive. As for his clothes in the film, I'd kill to have them. I also don't see where the film is slow. So I guess that I disagree with you on ... everything!

Alex said...

My how matters have changed! In
The Seventies, the studio’s perception of "Harold & Maude" wasn't a good one. They wrote the film off and it had to struggle to become a cult movie. It took years. Flashforward to today and the equally odd "her" is thought of not only as mainsteam but also Oscar bait. Back in 1971, it wouldn't have stood a chance and there wasn't much of a boutique/indie arm of the industry to nurture it either. Thank God that things have changed and that we now have a wonderful range of films, a richer range than the 70s, though that would be a vast argument admittedly.

m.h. said...

Loved this analysis of HER!!!

A.N. said...

A near-perfect movie blemished by the foulmouthed alien. I noticed only white people laughed at it at the movies - people not in touch with their emotions or the American sense of humor.

Unknown said...

Agree with Joe!

m.u. said...

Finally saw it and read your insightful review. I would have never thought Harold and Maude but after watching the film it did register.
I really loved much of the film and thought Phoenix was terrific in what must have been a difficult part. I also found it quite moving sand, in some ways, it reminded me of an Alan Rudolph film like "Choose M"e or "Welcome to LA" — similar moods.
One problem I did have was getting beyond Phoenix’s look: He resembled Michael Medved to me!

Mick said...

I enjoyed this movie more than any I've seen in a while. So clever, it sucked me right in and made me laugh out loud several times. I haven't seen Harold and Maud but i guess thats next on my list. Really enjoyed your review!

Val T. said...

I agree that the mustache and indeed Joaquin's whole appearance was cheesy in a Magnum P.I. sorta way. The look was distracting in that he didn't seem to fit the movie's time period, or match with Rooney Mara or even Scarlet J. That aside, it was a good thought-provoking film about relationships and where technology may be headed. I haven't seen Harold & Maude but plan to check it out soon.

Daryl Chin said...

A Note on the filming of HER: Joaquin Phoenix did not act alone; throughout the filming, Samantha Morton was on set, and she was the voice that Phoenix reacted to.

But when Spike Jonze started editing the movie, he felt that Samantha Morton's voice wasn't the one he wanted.

Why did he choose Scarlett Johansson? Anne Thompson is the only one who seems to have thought about this. Spike Jonze met Johansson when she was starring in LOST IN TRANSLATION. Thompson speculated that since LOST IN TRANSLATION was about a young woman's feeling of alienation in her marriage (and was written and directed by Jonze's ex-wife Sofia Coppola), HER was about a man's feeling of alienation after his divorce, so Jonze decided to play up the connection. BTW it took almost two years for Jonze to edit the film and re-do the soundtrack for HER, and it's to Megan Ellison's credit (she produced HER) that she let Jonze take his time, and supported his decision to re-do the entire soundtrack.

(In order to give Samantha Morton some credit for the work she put into the film, when Jonze took off her voice, he gave her a producing credit on the film.)

joe baltake said...

Daryl! Also, Jonze honored Morton by naming the character Samantha. Nice touch. -J