Why are so many of our Big Important Films overrated lately? Or worse, reprehensibly boring. In my column this week, I share the perfect antidote.
We’re all so smart, aren’t we? We know just what kinds of movies we like, what kinds of TV shows. We know which ones are serious and made with care, which ones are works of art. We know the ones that are acceptable forms of pop-culture junk food. We celebrate the high and the low simultaneously and we say people who don’t like our forms of high are simpletons and people who don’t like our forms of low are pretentious. We know what’s Good.
This isn’t all bad, all of our pronouncements and critiques and endorsements. It indicates our carnivorous appetite for culture. It indicates, at the very least, an enjoyment of artful things and a desire to participate in critical conversations. I participate in critical conversations all the time. Sometimes it’s rewarding. It feels like sharing good news. Sometimes it makes me feel jaded, cranky, even fraudulent. Where do I get off anyway? What towering artistic achievements of mine qualify me to judge? But I’m an optimistic admirer too, and respectful of people making art out of the stories they want to tell, so I run my mouth. I take pleasure in being an enthusiast, an evangelist for a book or show that moves me. I gasbagged about my dedication to The Wire and Six Feet Under relentlessly for so many years I’m surprised no one threw a pie in my face. (Dukie from Edward Tilghman Middle? Mercy! Has another character more thoroughly run your heart through a meat grinder?)
The problem is that lately, during the most recent cycle of Big Important Films, the gulf between what I thought I’d love, or what I’m being marketed to love, is leaving me desperately wanting. Until last weekend, that is, when I saw Spike Jonze’s film, Her, and was, to my relief, moved and altered by the experience.
By the time I saw Her, I’d worked myself up into a mild panic and state of irritation. Reviews for every serious movie out there were uniformly good. Everybody loved every damn thing. Excellent cinematography, talented actors in major roles, the highest production values, revered directors, period clothes and strange hair (Bradley Cooper’s perm comes to mind). And yet I was sitting through movies that felt overwrought, hammy, self-conscious in a way that pissed me off. Where are all the editors, I kept wondering. Yoohoo, any editors reporting for duty? Too many monologues, too many eat-the-scenery, character freak-outs that viewers are supposed to marvel at. Affectations and quirks with no beating heart at the center. I didn’t care about any of them. Too many tracking shots, obsessed-over soundtracks, instructive voiceovers. This is not okay! I wanted to shout. It’s not okay to make entire two-and-a-half-hour-long movies in homage to the short sequence, albeit great, in Goodfellas when Ray Liotta is riding a coked-up, insomniac, paranoiac runaway train while doing errands and avoiding a helicopter.
Some of what I saw was supposed to be “fun.” And some of it was—a conversation about female body hair between Rob Reiner and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street was fun for example. And Martin Scorsese? Who doesn’t acknowledge his genius? DiCaprio? My favorite major actor of the last decade. I adore him—his obvious intelligence, his ability to play any role with plausibility and skill. I adore his gigantic hands and his widow’s peak and the fact that his head keeps getting larger and more impressive with age. I’ll watch him do anything. And yet the antsy, annoyed, when-is-this-going-to-be-OVER tension I felt while watching The Wolf of Wall Street was acute. The entire experience was reprehensibly boring, almost depressing, not because of the revolting behavior and the creeps depicted in it, but because of my despair about how tedious the film was. The most wickedly pleasant part was DiCaprio’s first sale to a rich ‘whale’ over the phone. He licks his palm in pantomime at a critical, let’s say, penultimate moment in the closing of the deal.
Besides that, the most memorable sequences involve young, tan, naked females. It feels anti-woman to admit it, even though I don’t believe Scorsese is being misogynistic. The men in the film are sexually repulsive, or, at best, inert, and we’re supposed to see how ridiculous their antics are. No part of it feels like a celebration. In strings of endless scenes, some of which are meant to be tense or suspenseful or funny, I came away with a sense that the actors had a great time making their movie and I gained insight into the actress Margot Robbie’s breasts. I understood them at least. Breasts are fun. In addition to Robbie’s overall performance, her breasts are the only part of the film that isn’t overrated.
Overrated is an overrated word—it feels juvenile and petty. But it fits this cinematic moment. The major exception, though, the encounter that raised me right out of my little crisis and filled me back up with wonder, is Her. Stepping into that tender, heartbreaking, orange and pink world, a world I’m still carrying with me, was a rare trip.
Her contains the answer to my nagging, grumpy question about where all of the heart has gone. It’s all in this movie. Layered with loneliness and confusion and emotional paralysis, Her is also the most believable and extraordinary love story I’ve seen in a long time. I’m a fan in general of Spike Jonze’s work. He seems to care about, or at least spend most of his time on, the same things that interest me, so my starting point with him is always secure. Where the Wild Things Are slayed me too—the mother, the boy, the melancholy.
I don’t know quite how to summarize the effect Her has had on me. I can mention some things that keep floating in and out of my mind. I can mention the mobile devices in the near-future Los Angeles that Jonze imagines—how they look like slim, mid-century business card holders that open and close pleasingly, rather than touch-screen fingerprint collectors.
I can mention Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography, which is spectacular. Every muted but delicious color is right, every shot is framed for the moment, motivated by the emotion it conveys. The close-ups of Joaquin Phoenix’s character, Theodore Twombly, in bed admitting devastating things about himself particularly impressed me, as did the night photography—snow, darkness, wind, stillness, all filmed in a way that made me wince with emotion. I’m a sucker for images of dust-motes dancing in sunlight too—look how small we all are. I can mention the humor—not just half-smiles or chuckles offered by a generous audience, but real, laugh out loud moments of pure comedy. The video game sequences and the angry, foul-mouthed character in them are hilarious. I can mention the performances, which are all Oscar-worthy and vivid. My emotional response to Amy Adams in Her compared to Amy Adams in American Hustle is remarkable. Scarlett Johansson, particularly when her character is needy or afraid, gives voice to our biggest fears and romantic insecurities. Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of Theodore is infuriating and sympathetic and worthy of deep affection. I’m haunted by him.
How can a film so quiet make you feel so clamorous inside? It’s an achievement of the highest order. To be able to say things, or rather invite everyone else to think things, about intimacy and love and the evolution/stagnation of the human heart is all we can hope for from our art. A film like this makes up for everything else you might sit through. (Even the trailer I saw for a movie called Labor Day featuring Josh Brolin and my beloved Kate Winslet. They must swiftly recut this trailer unless this movie is a comedy. Brolin and Winslet appear to be preparing some kind of summer cobbler by massaging a bowl of peaches together, bodies pressed groin to ass, and all four gooey hands jammed in the mixing bowl. Like the splattering pottery wheel from Ghost but with ripe fruit slices and brown sugar.)
Maybe I should mention some of my own experiences and scars, and how they merge with my profound attraction to Her. But that seems unnecessary. That’s not what our “we’re so smart” critiques and endorsements should be about. At least we’d never admit that. Her tells the story of what it is to be alive right now, and sometime in the future. Probably the past as well. What it means to choose to love people and to choose to hurt them, and the enormous risk involved in both of those endeavors. There’s a moment, the very last second of the film actually, just as it cuts to black, when I detected a sound onscreen, though I’m not certain. It refers back to an earlier scene, when a similar sound is made. I would rather believe it’s there than find out otherwise. I’m afraid to see the film again and discover that I imagined it. It’s the sound of the most natural, beautiful thing in the world: Breath, life-giving oxygen, being drawn in, and then exhaled again by a human being. A person just making their way, like all of us.
This essay first appeared on the South Brooklyn Post on January 9, 2014.