The New York Film Festival closed Saturday night with the World Premiere of Spike Jonze‘s fourth feature, the irresistibly charming romantic fantasy Her, about a man who falls head over heels for his “operating system”. The studio held a simultaneous screening on the West Coast Saturday afternoon for L.A.-based critics and bloggers. Initial reaction was upbeat.
Whatever the December Warner Bros. release’s many attributes, its awards potential is yet to be determined. But I would say if it catches on with the Academy crowd at all, it could be poised to make Oscar history in at least one category. Scarlett Johansson, who poignantly voices Samantha the computer system that organizes Joaquin Phoenix‘s life and strikes up an intense and heartbreaking personal relationship with him, could possibly become the first solely voice-over performance to win an acting nomination. It’s never happened in the past that an actor, unseen on screen and strictly doing voice work has been able to nail a nomination from the Academy’s actors branch. But if ever it was going to happen this is the year, and Johansson’s is the performance. Her work (she replaced Samantha Morton) is exemplary. She’s also great in the current Don Jon as well. I am told by a Warner Bros. source working on the campaign that they have checked and the role is eligible. They plan to run her seriously for Best Supporting Actress and, if successful, will make the Academy history books. The idea could run into a roadblock as actors – which is the branch voting here – are notoriously shy to reward any performance that isn’t a flesh and blood role. There are any number of worthy animated feature voice over portrayals (not to mention the performance capture work of Andy Serkis) that have gone consistently unrecognized by their acting peers and a Johansson nomination would be revolutionary – a nod to the future if the actors branch even wants to go there.
Jonze, whose films Adaptation and Being John Malkovich won significant Oscar nominations and just one win (for Chris Cooper’s supporting turn in Adaptation), has made an appealing comedy for our times. It’s the kind of film that will cultivate fervent admirers but may leave others scratching their heads. So be it. The idea that a sad sack lonely guy played brilliantly by Phoenix, trying to recover from a devastating divorce, could essentially fall for his “laptop” is hilarious, but it somehow seems utterly plausible here. It’s a probing story of obsession run amok and the perfect fable for a society deeply in love with their gizmos. I have a similar relationship with my troubled Blackberry and worry constantly about our future together.
Of course comparisons will obviously be made with the 2007 film Lars And The Real Girl in which Ryan Gosling fell in love with a life-size blow-up doll. I liked that one too, but the Academy almost completely ignored it. Both Lars and particularly Her are perfectly realized examples of absurdist cinema that become oddly endearing and real.
You have to wonder if this film, which should click big with younger viewers, will sail over the heads of many Academy members who had a hard enough time just trying to figure out electronic voting last year. Nevertheless nominations for Original Screenplay for Jonze and a lead actor nod for Phoenix could definitely be in store. And if there’s any justice, the gorgeous cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema of perfectly-chosen Los Angeles-set locations should also figure into the mix. L.A. has not looked this good on screen in years and it should be a boost to new Los Angeles Film Czar Tom Sherak‘s cause to get more features filming in the City Of Angels. The supporting cast which includes the always-reliable Amy Adams and Olivia Wilde is also top notch. Warner Bros. already has a sure thing Best Picture contender in the smash hit Gravity, and a decent chance for significant recognition for Prisoners. Her may be a more acquired taste for traditional Oscar voters but if critics get behind it in the way early reaction seems to be going, it could build some momentum. It’s definitely a unique, and uniquely welcome, respite from the standard studio romantic comedy fare. Being different counts for a lot.