With little advance fanfare, Spike Jonze’s “Her” made a big splash with critics and the audience at the Oct. 12 close of the New York Film Festival. The Warner Bros. pic, which was below the kudos radar, immediately jumped into the Oscar race, but if it wants to go the distance, this runner has to be careful that it doesn’t stumble.
Assets: Jonze’s film is smart, entertaining, touching and a perfect time-capsule movie: It captures the mood of 2013 when people have an intense relationship with tech tools, while human contact seems harder than ever. Like many people (including awards voters!), it centers on the way we fill our lives with communication yet paradoxically lack human connections.
This is Jonze’s most accessible work, and merits consideration in the categories of best pic, direction, screenplay, and below the line work.
And, of course, performances. Two of his past three films earned acting nominations (Catherine Keener for “Being John Malkovich,” Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper for “Adaptation,” with the latter winning). Joaquin Phoenix jumps into the lead actor race with a complex and charming performance that shows aspects of him that haven’t been seen before. Only question for him is the overcrowded category.
Should Scarlett Johansson be considered in the supporting category? Absolutely, she’s terrific. But since awards voters have ignored the voice-only work of Robin Williams and Ellen DeGeneres in “Aladdin” and “Finding Nemo,” it’s an uphill battle. Still, Oscars have gone to actors without almost zero dialogue, ranging from Jane Wyman to Marlee Matlin to Jean Dujardin, so why not honor work relying on the voice?
The premise — an L.A. man (Joaquin Phoenix) in the not-too-distant future gets an OS (operating system) that supplies him with verbal information for all his daily questions. But as the voice (Scarlett Johansson) becomes more dimensional and human-like, he begins to fall in love with her.
Challenges: In his very positive review, Variety‘s Scott Foundas predicts it will click with hip, urban audiences, and could have some crossover to the sci-fi/fantasy crowd. But will Oscar voters relate? The average age of Academy members is over 60 and it’s a question how much they can connect to the character’s dilemma. One of the rumors about “The Social Network” is that some voters didn’t follow it because they didn’t know what Facebook was.
Warner Bros.’ big assignment is to get Academy members to see it, since voters have limited time and don’t always embrace high-concept films. In addition, the studio workers need to reassure people that this is not “Simone” (with Al Pacino), “Never Let Me Go” (Keira Knightley) or “Gattaca” or any of those other fantasy films about quasi-humans. The studio needs to underline the fact that this is a story about humans, not about technology.
And, of course, the challenge for everyone this year: There are a lot of good contenders for a limited number of slots. Sony’s “Captain Phillips” opened Oct. 11, and this week’s launches include Fox Searchlight’s “12 Years a Slave,” Lionsgate-Roadside’s “All Is Lost,” DreamWorks’ “The Fifth Estate” and Sony Classics’ “Kill Your Darlings.” It’s a crowded landscape, and it’s only mid-October.