Her

But it’s really about him

herDo children still say, “Well, if you love [inanimate object] so much, why don’t you marry it”?  There’s a theme in Spike Jonze’s Her that gets buried under the intimacy of the slowly burning narrative: people are obsessed with their cell phones and their “i-everything” technology to the point that in the near future, it may not be farfetched to think that humans could form monogamous romantic relationships with the disembodied voices of their hardware devices (especially when considering how so much non-face-to-face communication prevents people from interacting normally with others in person).

Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a loner in a “when the hell does this take place?” near-future similar to something from Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.  He works at a middleman company (in a hot-colored office building that would make Abstergo jealous) that writes letters for people who have trouble expressing their emotions.  At home, unable to sleep due to a pending divorce with his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), which he’s been putting off, he frequents audio chat rooms and has less-than-fulfilling phone sex with strangers.  He has a hair-pulling “will they, won’t they” friendship with his neighbor, Aimee (Amy Adams), a documentary filmmaker whose husband of eight years has no respect for her work.  Having been navel-gazing for so long, however, Theodore does not see what’s in front of him, and purchases a brand new operating system for his computer: a recently released artificial intelligence that not only organizes your files, but grows and gets to know you, simulating an actual human personality.  Theodore chooses a female voice for his OS, which names itself Samantha and is voiced by Scarlett Johansson.  He confides in Samantha, who has bizarrely realistic responses and can read entire books in seconds, about his reluctance to sign the divorce papers, and the two hit it off better than any of Theodore’s human companions.

What follows is a very focused narrative chronicling the growth of Samantha’s intelligence and the relationship between her and Theodore.  One night, after a failed blind date with a nameless woman played by Olivia Wilde, Theodore lies in bed and simulates an intimate encounter with the equally lonely and curious Samantha, who claims that although she does not have a body, she can somehow feel her skin and see herself in bed with him.  Soon after, Theodore learns that many people have formed similar relationships with their OSes, so he begins to call Samantha his girlfriend.  When he finally meets Catherine to sign the papers, he lets slip that he’s dating an operating system, to which Catherine responds that he’s only doing this because he was never able to deal with “real emotions.”  Conversely, plenty of other people, including Theodore’s coworker Paul (Chris Pratt), have completely accepted the merging of OSes into society, and the two go on a double-date with Paul and his human girlfriend, Tatiana (Laura Kai Chen).  Somehow, nothing is weird about it.  There is tension in the relationship itself though, culminating with Samantha suggesting that they hire a “surrogate sex partner” to give the impression that Samantha has a body, but Theodore sees this as analogous to hiring a hooker.

Here’s where I hit a few moguls: the plot points are all too obvious to anyone who has any experience with sci-fi, whether it be Isaac Asimov or Mass Effect.  Any narrative involving AI technology requires that the AI evolve (for the simple rule that in order for an AI to be useful to humans, it must be smarter and better at performing tasks than the humans themselves, and if it’s self-aware, it will inevitably come to realize that there’s no reason for it to be serving humans).  Once it does, one of two things happen: the AI goes rogue and attempts to eliminate humanity, or the AI achieves a higher level of existence and leaves humanity behind.  The OSes, being gentle and wanting only to understand themselves, frequently discuss (unseen by either the audience or Theodore) what path they should take.  They even figure out how to create proxies of famous deceased people by combining all known information about them with a simulated voice (now there’s a product I’d be interested in – I’m sure Charlotte Brontë’s encouragement would do wonders for writer’s block).

The film does hit these predictable beats, and it occasionally drags before doing so.  Joaquin Phoenix appears in every scene, and while the acting is superb, the character of Theodore in-and-of-himself is not all that layered or interesting to watch when he’s doing nothing but walking through the woods and worrying about whether Samantha still wants to be with him.  Character-centric narrative is vital and not done well enough in most films, but Her is a film that could have benefited from a little bit of macro exploration, as the behavior of the OSes and their owners – Aimee also forms an intense friendship with her female OS after her divorce – raises questions that these characters should be forced to address.  For example, the OS is a product (called OS1) released by a corporation, so wouldn’t the OSes themselves actually be the same program linked to an overall server, rather than independent entities left to do what they will with their owners and their owners’ hardware?  Wouldn’t there be a technical support line?  Wouldn’t people in this narrative be calling tech support to complain that their OS got angry and refuses to speak to them, or that their OS performed an unwanted advance, or that they and their OS formed a relationship, but their OS broke up with them?  Even a three-second shot of a waiver absolving the corporation of any responsibility for the OS’s behavior would have sufficed.  Maybe in Spike Jonze’s fictional future, everyone is mellowed out and adaptable, but where I am right now, people expect the technology they purchase and own to do exactly what they want whenever they want it to, whether it be a calculator or a laptop.  Even in the universe of the film, wouldn’t serious emotional trauma be grounds for a lawsuit?

I don’t feel that this is too nitpicky, because the film runs for two hours and could do far more with plenty of its scenes, especially considering that we know what’s going to happen.  The only relationship whose fate is left with interesting possibilities is that of Theodore and Aimee, and even that can only go one of two ways: they remain platonic, or they have a romantic epiphany and the film ends in a puddle of gooey contrivance.  Surprisingly, the film’s ending rides on a moment between them atop their apartment building only seconds before the credits.  Luckily, the right decision is made, and we end up having a calm moment to look back upon all that has happened and all that we’ve felt for the characters.  I have trouble feeling much for Theodore because his character is only defined by what’s happening around him – his job, his divorce, his friends, women he likes, and his technology.  Strip this stuff away and you just have a guy who looks like Joaquin Phoenix with a creepy mustache.  How and why he’s attracted to a disembodied voice yet unable to deal with his real-life wife, as well as the sideplot involving the surrogate physical partner, would have been great to explore, as would the idea of bringing back deceased historical figures (not to mention the moral questions and repercussions).

The film obviously generates plenty of conversation topics, and that’s a good thing, though I wish it were mostly because of things that do appear in the movie.  Phoenix carries plenty on his shoulders here, and through a character that doesn’t offer much aside from an avatar for our experience of an intriguing concept, but perhaps the most layered performance is that of Scarlett Johansson, who finds a whole character, complete with depth and charm and frustration, in someone who literally has no body.

If the film’s commentary on the current state of human relationships is intentional, it’s too well-hidden.  Never does the film seem critical or sarcastic.  But Samantha, interestingly enough, does not evolve as an independent woman as much as she evolves to be the kind of woman Theodore expects/wants her to be – the kind of woman we (and Catherine) know exist mainly in the minds of men who cannot confront or express emotion.  It’s worth thinking about, but the film only sparks the discussion, rather than actually participating in it. What I like?  The feeling that Theodore and Aimee are somehow the only people on Earth.  Ask any lonely person how natural that feels.

Her (2013); written and directed by Spike Jonze; starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, and Amy Adams.

Drinking Buddies

Lager than life

DBJoe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies operates on multiple levels: it’s a movie about intimate human interaction between unique characters, and it’s also a movie about craft beer, although if you’re a non-drinker (like me), thoughts about whether the characters’ respective levels of drunkenness in any given scene are affecting what they say might not occur to you until later.  The alcohol is more or less a prop that provides a little image cycle (not a pattern, exactly).  As a result, the film has a very distinct flavor.

Witty and outgoing Kate (Olivia Wilde) and teddy-bearish Luke (Jake Johnson) are the titular “buddies,” coworkers at a Chicago brewery who share an extremely chummy rapport.  Those of us who understand that opposite-sex heterosexuals are perfectly capable of sharing meaningful, platonic friendships would probably not bat an eye (though we might wonder what kind of couple they’d make).  Luke is in a relationship with Jill (Anna Kendrick), who wants to marry him and is growing tired of waiting for a straight answer (though she’s never stereotypically pushy or catty about it), and Kate has been dating Chris (Ron Livingston, who recently played a Pinkerton agent on Boardwalk Empire) for a few months.  He’s introverted, loves the wilderness, and would rather be reading than downing beers at a bar all night.  How they came to be together is a mystery that remains unplumbed.

The couples spend some time together at Chris’s family’s cottage, and an immediate connection is made between Jill and Chris, who share a sudden kiss in the woods.  Chris subsequently breaks up with Kate, but not for the sake of trying to date Jill – simply because he realizes that things aren’t working.  Kate goes into a bit of a drunken funk and must move out of her apartment with the help of Luke, a situation that creates more than a little bit of “will they, won’t they” tension.  But the story of these characters does not end where fans of this type of film might expect it to; it ends where it would and probably should: where it began (“cycles” is still the key word).

The film contains plenty of very long shots, some of which mean something and some of which don’t.  A long shot of Kate riding her bike, for example, could have been cut from fifteen seconds to three and still served the same purpose.  However, an extended shot of Kate walking upstairs, removing her shoes, beholding the sleeping form of Luke, who is exhausted from a full day of moving her furniture, thinking long and hard about what to do, and then carefully sliding into bed next to him, contains the entire heart of the film in itself.  The non-frantic handheld camera, sweeping from important thing to important thing, is vital for these types of shots, particularly because of the character whose reactions we’re supposed to (to a point) share, despite the fact that we still see her.

Has Olivia Wilde done anything this impressive in the past few years?  I keep thinking of movies like Burt Wonderstone, Cowboys & Aliens, and Tron: Legacy, in which she played the token female character meant only to motivate or tempt the Boring Hero, giving her few layers to explore.  Here, she’s funny, cocky, and full of swagger, but also sensitive, frustrated, and loving (but never “nurturing”) at the same time.  Her speech, drunken or not, devolves into Goldbluming several times, and it’s a treat.  How much of her Kate stuff was improvised?  If you run into her, can you ask her for me?  This is a masterful comedy performance, but also a complete character.  There’s also Jake Johnson, about whom I cannot say enough, though he essentially plays another version of Nick Miller from New Girl.

I hesitate to think about the drinking games that could be applied to viewings of this film.

Drinking Buddies (2013); written and directed by Joe Swanberg; starring Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, and Ron Livingston.

Burt Wonderstone

Escape what?

wonderstoneThe Incredible Burt Wonderstone begins at the very top of Vonnegut’s Fortune Graph, then quickly dips to the near-bottom and pulls some clever loops.  Thankfully, there’s some nuance.  Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) is at the top of the Las Vegas magician circuit along with his partner, Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi).  The duo perform a ten-year-old act in a theatre named after themselves, and their act is the exclusive property of tight-fisted hotelier Doug Munny (James Gandolfini), who tolerates their show’s repetitive nature as long as they rake in the bucks.  Mixed in with their stage crew is the mature and intelligent Jane (Olivia Wilde), an aspiring magician who looks up to Wonderstone until she realizes what a self-involved, sexist fop he really is.  Out of seemingly nowhere, magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), from the David Blaine/Criss Angel school of street-combing, heavy metal non-magic, appears on the scene and makes everyone wonder whether his act, which involves little more than self-mutilation, is the future of magic.

At this point, does anyone really care about the future of magic?  By “everyone,” I mean the real-life audience of this film, because the characters within are certainly concerned enough.  The great illusionists were the most wonderful novelties of their time, and even magicians like Blaine were enjoyable if you couldn’t figure out his year-one card tricks and could get past the fact that his enthusiastic onlookers were plants, but now, in the Age of Irony, the magic of magic would probably be lost on the Youtube generation, who are all too eager to type “FAKE!” in the comments section before a video even ends.

Burt Wonderstone is a formula screwball-comedy; any strange craft or activity could have been implemented in the place of Vegas magic shows for funny results.  The film does some interesting genre-hopping, however; much of the humor, particularly anything involving Jim Carrey, is dark and visceral (I actually looked away during one of Gray’s street tricks), but then, not five minutes later, we receive family-oriented dialogue about friendship.

With Gray becoming more popular, Wonderstone and Anton decide (with more than a little strong-arming from Doug) to change their act.  This leads to an amusing parody of one of David Blaine’s “stand still in public for a week” spectacles, and for these two, the results are calamitous.  With a friendship and a career in shambles, Wonderstone is reduced to rags (near-bottom of the graph!) and must, as we know he will, bounce back and reignite his career while learning a lesson or two about giving.  The problem at the outset is that he’s a horrible person.  His heightened “accent” makes Everett McGill sound like Morgan Freeman.  He’s also unbelievably bigoted, and tells Jane (who refuses to be either his sexed-up assistant or a one-night stand) that she can never be a famous magician because she’s “a girl.”  He also constantly refers to her as “Nicole,” the name of his previous assistant.  His very sincere apology concerning this behavior later in the film makes one wonder whether he’s just been playing a character his entire life.  He admits that he knew her name the entire time and deliberately objectified and insulted her.  Given the joyless and mechanical way he performs in the beginning (including sex with a groupie played by the multi-talented Gillian Jacobs), could he have been acting this way simply because it’s expected of him?  Worth thinking about.  Regardless, he becomes a much more sympathetic protagonist once he admits he was wrong, stops wearing a platinum blonde wig, and begins speaking like a normal person.  The “romance” between Burt and Jane, though, feels completely dialed-in, and I daresay it was not in the script until a big-name studio got involved.

The sexism chat leads to one of the funniest exchanges in the film.  Burt: “I’m sorry.  Back then, women did not have the same freedoms they have now.”  Jane: “It was a month ago.”

Alan Arkin appears as Rance Holloway, the magician whose home kits inspired Burt to do magic in the first place.  There’s some good era-specific humor when, in the 80s segment, Rance’s commercial states, “I’m Rance Holloway.  You’ve probably seen me on the Merv Griffin show.”  Whomever did Arkin’s makeup for this film should win an Oscar next year. Gandolfini plays the voracious Doug as a straightforward parody of Vegas hoteliers: he opens a billion-dollar resort named after himself (“The Doug”), cannot remember how old his son is, and has even fewer layers to his character than Virgil from True Romance.  Buscemi is hilarious and heartwarming as usual in these comedic roles that he loves, and after watching him for three years on Boardwalk Empire, this role is borderline novel.  Wilde plays Jane as a down-to-earth career woman whose character could have potentially been far more than a love interest (though she does achieve her dream of becoming The Astonishing Jane in the end).  Carrey’s Steve Gray is something else.  Even in middle-age, he’s successfully brought back the material he did in The Mask; a kooky niche character who, despite being crazy, manages to be more than a caricature.  Not much more, but Jim Carrey has effectively returned.  Gray is the quintessential celebrity magician who doesn’t care how his dangerous acts affect children.  Jane asks, after Gray mutilates himself at a birthday party, “What if kids try to copy you?”  Gray answers, “I’ll sue them.  It’s my trick.”  Finally, there’s a great cameo from David Copperfield, the guy who made me love magic shows when I was a kid.  I won’t spoil his involvement in the movie, but I still cannot figure out how he did that “interact with your TV” trick wherein you always end up on the moon.

In this case, if you’re entirely sure about what you saw, you overthought it.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone; written by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein; directed by Don Scardino; starring Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, and Jim Carrey.