FIVE STARS FOR HER, SPIKE JONZE’S RO­BOTIC RO­MANCE

DAVID STRAT­TON

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page - David Strat­ton

Her (MA15+) ★★★★★ Na­tional re­lease from Thurs­day

In­side Llewyn Davis (MA15+) ★★★★ Na­tional re­lease from Thurs­day

SPIKE Jonze’s Her is a strange, and strangely beau­ti­ful, love story for the com­puter age. It’s the story of a lonely man who falls in love with the op­er­at­ing sys­tem on his smart­phone, and if that sounds too weird for words, re­mem­ber that Jonze, who made his name di­rect­ing mu­sic videos for Bjork, Beastie Boys, Fat­boy Slim and oth­ers, started out as fea­ture film di­rec­tor with Be­ing John Malkovich (1999), in which pro­tag­o­nist John Cu­sack dis­cov­ered a por­tal into the mind of ac­tor Malkovich. That film and its equally orig­i­nal and com­pelling fol­low-up, Adap­ta­tion (2002), were scripted by Char­lie Kauf­man, but this time Jonze is work­ing from his own orig­i­nal screen­play, and it’s as fan­ci­ful as any­thing Kauf­man dreamed up. What makes it the best Amer­i­can film seen in quite a while isn’t just its all-too-be­liev­able ex­plo­ration of the in­ter­ac­tion be­tween hu­mans and their tech­nol­ogy in the very near fu­ture but the fact that the drama works on a great many lev­els.

The story takes place in Los An­ge­les some time from now, though the ex­act year isn’t spec­i­fied. Theodore Twombly, played with just the right com­bi­na­tion of aware­ness and vul­ner­a­bil­ity by Joaquin Phoenix, works for Beau­ti­ful Hand­writ­tenLet­ters.com; he ‘‘ writes’’ com­puter-gen­er­ated ‘‘ hand­writ­ten’’ let­ters, mostly love let­ters, for peo­ple nos­tal­gic for a time when hand­writ­ing was the nor­mal means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion (prob­a­bly the same peo­ple who cling to vinyl record­ings). Theodore has re­cently sep­a­rated from his wife, Cather­ine (Rooney Mara), but is close to his long-time best friend Amy (Amy Adams). One of the many prob­lems fac­ing this lonely guy is that he’s not very con­fi­dent when it comes to dat­ing: a blind date, with an at­trac­tive young woman played by Olivia Wilde, starts well but ends badly (‘‘You’re re­ally a creepy date!’’). It’s only when Theodore ac­quires one of the first ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence op­er­at­ing sys­tems, called Sa­man­tha and voiced by Scar­lett Jo­hans­son, that his life changes for the bet­ter, be­cause Sa­man­tha is ev­ery­thing he wants in a woman: she’s smart, she’s at­ten­tive, she’s af­fec­tion­ate — she’s prac­ti­cally hu­man, as per­fect as a fe­male com­pan­ion could pos­si­bly be, ex­cept that she’s only a voice em­a­nat­ing from Theodore’s phone. This world-first tech­nol­ogy break­through is, it’s claimed, ‘‘ not just an op­er­at­ing sys­tem — it’s a con­scious­ness’’.

Sa­man­tha soon makes her­self in­dis­pens­able; af­ter po­litely re­quest­ing to look through Theodore’s hard drive, she ad­vises him to save 86 files and delete the rest. She corrects his let­ters, sorts his con­tacts and even finds for him a hu­man sur­ro­gate for her­self (Por­tia Dou­bleday).

It says much for Jonze and his won­der­ful ac­tors that he takes this de­cid­edly off­beat premise and makes it seem com­pletely real. Who would have thought a scene in which Theodore takes Sa­man­tha on a date, or in­tro­duces her to Amy, would have seemed so be­liev­able. Phoenix plays it ab­so­lutely straight, as does ev­ery mem­ber of the sup­port­ing cast. Clearly the cast­ing of ‘‘ Sa­man­tha’’ was of cru­cial im­por­tance, and it’s in­trigu­ing that, for what­ever rea­son, Jo­hans­son re­placed Sa­man­tha Mor­ton, the orig­i­nal voice, in post­pro­duc­tion, as has been widely re­ported.

Her tack­les some very ba­sic themes, not least the na­ture of love and the in­creas­ingly im­por­tant in­ter­ac­tion be­tween hu­mans and the ma­chines they’ve cre­ated. Cin­ema has been fas­ci­nated with the cre­ation of ro­botic crea­tures at least as far back as Me­trop­o­lis and Frankenstein, but the con­cept has usu­ally in­volved some kind of threat, like the ‘‘ repli­cants’’ in Blade Run­ner; the won­der of Jonze’s ex­tra­or­di­nary film is that he makes the love story so emo­tion­ally enthralling — and when you leave the cin­ema and see peo­ple on the street earnestly talk­ing into their smart­phones you may well think this soar­ing piece of imag­i­na­tion is closer to the truth of to­day’s world than at first meets the eye. AN ex­cep­tion­ally good week for qual­ity Amer­i­can cin­ema also sees the open­ing of In­side Llewyn Davis, the lat­est film from the al­ways un­pre­dictable Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan. Their last film prior to this, the western True Grit, was their most suc­cess­ful in box­of­fice terms; Llewyn Davis is one of their more mod­est ef­forts, the in­ti­mate story of a young singer-song­writer strug­gling to find fame and for­tune in New York’s Green­wich Vil­lage in 1961, at about the same time as Bob Dy­lan was emerg­ing from the same mi­lieu.

Davis, in­car­nated in a ca­reer-best per­for­mance by Os­car Isaac, is ta­lented but so­cially in­ept. What’s worse, he’s a user who takes ad­van­tage of his long-suf­fer­ing friends, in­clud­ing the women with whom he has fleet­ing en­coun­ters. We first meet him, in the film’s very evoca­tive open­ing se­quence, singing one of his own songs (not a very cheer­ful bal­lad, it must be said) in a smoky night­club (the Gaslight Cafe); when he leaves the es­tab­lish­ment in the small hours of the morn­ing, he gets vi­o­lently bashed for rea­sons he claims not to un­der­stand.

Davis has nowhere per­ma­nent to live; he crashes on the lounge in the apart­ment of Mr and Mrs Gor­fein (Ethan Phillips, Robin Bar­rett), but when his wel­come wears out with them he’ll ca­su­ally move on to im­pose him­self on his unim­pressed sis­ter (Jea­nine Ser­ralles), or his good friend Jean (Carey Mul­li­gan), the wife of her mu­si­cal part­ner Jim (Justin Timberlake). Ir­re­spon­si­bil­ity is Davis’s main claim to fame: charged with keep­ing an eye on the Gor­feins’ tabby cat, he al­lows the crea­ture to es­cape the apart­ment, trig­ger­ing a se­ries of qui­etly hi­lar­i­ous scenes and the film’s fun­ni­est line (spo­ken by Mrs G). Jean is also pretty sure Davis, with whom she was un­wise enough to have a brief fling, is the fa­ther of her un­born child.

The Coens’ sin­gu­lar achieve­ment here is to make Davis a strangely ap­peal­ing char­ac­ter de­spite his man­i­fold short­com­ings, so we em­pathise with him as he sets out to try to make his mark on the mu­sic scene, which in­volves tak­ing a road trip to Chicago to meet a fa­mous agent (F. Mur­ray Abraham), a bleakly funny odyssey that also in­cludes the Coens’ reg­u­lar ac­tor John Good­man and Gar­rett Hed­lund.

In in­ter­views the Coens have ex­plained the char­ac­ter of Llewyn Davis was partly in­spired by Dave Van Ronk, one of the key fig­ures of the New York mu­sic scene’s folk re­vival in the early 60s. One of the con­sid­er­able strengths of this ex­tremely ami­able film is the fidelity with which the Coens, on a pre­sum­ably lim­ited bud­get, have re-cre­ated the Lower Man­hat­tan of 50 years ago — this is in no small way due to the im­pres­sive con­tri­bu­tion of cin­e­matog­ra­pher Bruno Del­bon­nel, who on this oc­ca­sion has re­placed the brothers’ reg­u­lar vis­ual col­lab­o­ra­tor, Roger Deakins.

The film is a show­case for Isaac, and his win­ning per­for­mance of a not al­ways lik­able char­ac­ter is im­pres­sive. Mul­li­gan, Timberlake and other cast mem­bers ap­pear briefly, with the Gor­feins’ cat giv­ing one of the screen’s best per­for­mances by a fe­line. The songs are com­pletely of the pe­riod and have been as­sem­bled by T. Bone Bur­nett, who also worked on the Coens’ other mu­si­cal de­light, O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Joaquin Phoenix and Olivia Wilde in

Her, top; and Os­car Isaac as Llewyn Davis, above

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