Aspen Times Weekly: Tight connections at the cinema |

Aspen Times Weekly: Tight connections at the cinema

Joaquin Phoenix stars in "Her," which showed in the Academy Screenings series and opens nationally Friday, Jan. 10.
Courtesy photo |

The description for “Her” makes it sound as if Spike Jonse, whose films include “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation,” is in the mode we expect — loopy, imaginative, and divorced from reality. The brief summary goes: Guy develops an intimate relationship with his computer’s operating system. Throw in the fact that the guy is played by the dependably odd Joaquin Phoenix, and we come to expect a movie that reminds us only slightly of the world we actually know.

So probably the strangest part of the endearing, marvelous “Her” is how thoroughly connected it is to recognizable human emotions. In fact, Jonze, who wrote and directed, takes dead-center aim at the core quality of humanity: the yearning — bottomless, awesome and painful — to connect to other human beings.

Never mind that the object of desire here, an operating system voiced by Scarlett Johansson that goes by the name Samantha, is lacking in standard human gear like a face and body.

“Her,” which had a one-time showing recently in Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings series and opens nationally on Friday, Jan. 10, isn’t about the object of desire, but desire itself. Phoenix plays Theodore, who sits in a cubicle composing intimate letters and cards for people less eloquent than he is. Theodore is in the final stages of a painful divorce; he can’t get himself to sign the legal papers that would sever him from his wife (Rooney Mara). Sad and lonely, Theodore warms to the operating system that plays almost constantly in his ear.

Samantha fulfills all of Theodore’s needs (yes, all). But she is a fantasy of a partner. She is flirty, funny and curious about whatever Theodore has on his mind. Her most salient quality is a total capacity for understanding; she knows what Theodore needs at each moment, and she seems to have been programmed with no sense of judgment.

Jonze must have been tempted to show the physical embodiment of Johansson. “Her” is set in a slightly futuristic Los Angeles, and visual technology is clearly at the point where an operating system could be represented bodily. But Jonze was wise to leave Johansson, in all her loveliness, out of the picture. This allows the emotions to belong entirely to Theodore, with the film focusing sharply on the existential quality of his loneliness.

“Her” could well have played out as a satire about our over-reliance on technology, how we have replaced companions with gadgets. But Jonze — and Phoenix, whose performance is touchingly down to earth — sidesteps that obvious angle, and makes a more original point. Technology might satisfy some of our cravings, might distract us to a good extent. But it hasn’t diminished our need to connect to others of our species. (Or reasonable facsimiles thereof.) Get past the out-of-this-world premise, and “Her” exists entirely on an emotional realm we recognize as the human condition.

Another reason to praise “Her”: It seems to have tapped into the issue of the moment. Look at the Academy Screenings series, which finished last week, as a whole, and what you see are variations on the theme of finding connection.

The premise of director Jason Reitman’s “Labor Day” (opening Jan. 31) comes off as far-fetched as the one in “Her.” It takes Adele, a damaged single mom played by Kate Winslet, only a day or so to fall deeply for the menacing escaped convict (Josh Brolin) who has taken her and her teenage son hostage in their New Hampshire home. But we recognize what is driving Adele’s attraction. Cut off too long from the world, she will take almost anything that happens to get dropped at her doorstep. The story — especially the gloppy ending — requires a real suspension of disbelief, and this is not Reitman’s finest moment, but “Labor Day” tells its story well.

Director Alexander Payne reaches a new height in his filmmaking with “Nebraska,” in large part on the frail, stooped back of Bruce Dern. Dern plays Woody, an old man who has systematically removed himself from his surroundings. He drinks; he ignores his wife Kate (the excellent June Squibb); he has done whatever it took to become estranged from his sons (Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk). But the outlandish promise of a million-dollar prize leads Woody to begrudgingly accept his son David (Forte) as his partner on a road trip to Nebraska, and to Woody’s childhood hometown. The trip doesn’t exactly change Woody, but we get a look at what’s inside the gruff layer of skin.

Judi Dench is the title character of “Philomena,” an elderly woman prompted by a journalist to look for the son she was forced to give up for adoption decades earlier. The witty, stalwart Philomena claws her way through a thicket of deceptions to learn the fate of her son. In the end, finding her child proves impossible, but that doesn’t stop her from making as much of a connection as she can.

Another character — a true-life one this time — looking to make an impossible connection is Tim Jenison, of “Tim’s Vermeer.” The fascinating documentary tracks Jenison’s years-long quest to discover the techniques of the 17th-century Dutch painter Vermeer, and then use those methods to recreate a Vermeer.

“Blue Is the Warmest Color” has become almost legendary for its lesbian sex scenes. The hype proves way overblown; it’s merely a French film. More than sex, this is the story of romance, and what happens when love gets lost. Why that justifies a three-hour running time, I couldn’t say. Neither could I say why the sex scenes went as long as they did.

The Chilean film “Gloria” isn’t as conceptually original as “Her,” but is its equal in exploring the pain and pleasure of human interaction. Paulina Garcia is outstanding as the title character, a 58-year-old divorcée who hasn’t given up hope that there are more loves and laughs, songs and dances, ahead. She understands the price: Happy endings are no guarantee when you put yourself in close contact with another person.