FIVE STARS FOR HER, SPIKE JONZE’S ROBOTIC ROMANCE
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