Opening on Christmas day, along with "Grudge Match" and a few other films with which it has nothing in common, writer-director Spike Jonze's "Her" is the most beguiling and imaginative picture of 2013, the one I'd miss the most if it hadn't been made.
Jonze, born Adam Spiegel, came through town the other week, and we talked after a downtown screening and then again, the following morning, at the Public Hotel, formerly the Ambassador East, in the Gold Coast neighborhood. Now 44, he has made three previous features: "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation," both exquisite brain-benders written by Charlie Kaufman, and the controversial adaptation of "Where the Wild Things Are," written with Dave Eggers, taken from Maurice Sendak's picture book. "Wild Things," Jonze told me recently, is a film — emotionally bruising in ways not easily shaken — he "never could've made if I had kids." "Her," in contrast to the Kaufman scripts he's brought to the screen, is easily tracked and narratively streamlined. Yet what's going on inside the package is guaranteed to lead to all sorts of discussions about how we live now.
Set in Los Angeles of the near future, where everyone wears extremely high-waisted beltless pants, "Her" is about a writer, played by Joaquin Phoenix, who writes letters on behalf of the clients of BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com. He's recovering, slowly, from the breakup of his marriage. (For a time Jonze was married to filmmaker Sofia Coppola.) Papers must be signed; Phoenix's character, Theodore Twombly, stalls and dog-paddles around the issue.
And then he falls in love again. This time it's with a woman who isn't there: the dazzlingly intuitive good-time gal who is the voice, and perhaps the soul, of a sophisticated new artificial intelligence operating system. Siri on steroids.
"Her" asks large questions in glancing ways about the way we relate in a technologically smothered society. Jonze and his artistic collaborators imagine a future that's a little bit seductive and a little bit alienating and so close to what we already know, it may as well be taking place 10 minutes from now.
"In the design of this world we wanted a utopian, poppy quality, where everything is nice, but even in this niceness and comfort there's a loneliness and a longing to connect," Jonze says.
The idea for the script came in the pre-Siri age, about a decade ago. For laughs, Jonze tried an instant message chat with an artificial intelligence program. "The first 20 seconds surprised me," he says. "It really sounded like it was responding to me." Then it didn't.
"Her" takes it a thousand steps further. Theodore and Samantha begin "dating." This isn't so freakish in the realm of Jonze's soon-enough version of L.A., which the film depicts by collaging together modern-day L.A. locations and modern-day Shanghai. "Her" is marvelous science fiction, but there are no flying cars or ray-guns. It is about love and loss and friendship and growing up, and Jonze says it truly was "a challenge to make a love story between two people, and one of them's not onscreen."
Jonze finds his movies in the editing phase. He worked on "Her" for 14 months after shooting was completed. Many things didn't make the final cut, including a scene with Chris Cooper, featured in a movie-within-a-movie. Some things Jonze shoots even if he knows they won't get in; some things he shoots assuming they won't, or being told by others they shouldn't, but they sneak in anyway.
"I'm in awe of the Coen brothers," he says. "They shoot the script they write, and supposedly they shoot around 200,000 feet of film, whereas the rest of us shoot a million." Jonze goes at his craft differently. He's after a tangle of feelings in motion. "I want to make films without a single clear message, and films that are as close as possible to what it feels like to be alive. At least to me."
And the pants? "Honestly, I didn't know they were going to be funny! But we did a wardrobe fitting and put them on Joaquin, and then we thought, 'Well, that's kind of funny, but let's go even higher with them.'" He pauses and smiles. "The movie was fun to design. It was fun to think about what our future was going to be."
"Her" opens in Chicago Dec. 25.
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