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Spike Jonze Wins Over NY Film Fest With ‘Her,’ Sets Sights on Oscar

Spike Jonze Wins Over NY Film Fest With 'Her,' Sets Sights on Oscar

Jonze's quirky love story is a hit with critics and festivalgoers, but can such an unconventional film win over Academy voters?

An odd, touching love story about a man and his operating system, Spike Jonze's “Her” set Twitter abuzz, won rave reviews and threatened to become a wild-card entry in the Oscar race when it premiered at the New York Film Festival and screened on both coasts on Saturday.

With Joaquin Phoenix as a lonely divorced man in a futuristic Los Angeles, and Scarlett Johansson as “Samantha,” the voice of his intuitive operating system, the film mixes the unconventional storytelling approach of previous Jonze films “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation” with a very human core; it's really a movie about intimacy, not technology.

Also read: ‘Her’ Review: She's Virtual, But You Can't Have Everything

TheWrap‘s Brent Lang reports from the NYFF premiere, and Steve Pond assesses the film's awards prospects:

BRENT LANG: Spike Jonze's “Her” was warmly received at its world premiere as the closing night film of the 2013 New York Film Festival. There was audible crying during the emotionally poignant finale, but when Jonze, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams and Olivia Wilde appeared on the balcony at the Alice Tully Hall after the credits rolled the applause was enthusiastic and sustained, but only a smattering of audience members rose to their feet.

Before the film rolled, Jonze confessed that editors had been working on the picture until hours before its debut. He thanked the cast members in attendance and an absent Scarlett Johansson, who plays the disembodied voice of the operating system that Phoenix falls in love with, joking that the actress who was busy filming another picture, “is in the ether with us, as she will be in the movie.”

At a party for the film at the rooftop bar of the Standard Hotel, guests such as Tony Kushner, Edward Norton, Paul Dano and Philip Seymour Hoffman nibbled on truffle grilled-cheese sandwiches and Asian chicken wraps, and swarmed the director and Phoenix to offer their congratulations.

Privately, the adjective most often used to describe the picture was “interesting,” with some faulting the film for being overly long and for failing to maintain its momentum in the third act. However, Phoenix and Johansson were singled out for their performances, as was Jonze's vision of the future as a place of high-waisted pants and Apple-inflected interior design.

Closing Night Gala Presentation Of "Her" - Red Carpet - The 51st New York Film Festival

Getty Images

In fact, both the location of the screening and the after party were particularly apt. In an interview with New York magazine, Jonze said that members of the architectural firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, which helped renovate Lincoln Center and New York City's elevated walkway/park the High Line, helped him realize his futuristic vision of Los Angeles. Their handiwork was evident, not only in the amber-infused Alice Tully Hall, but also at the Standard, which abuts and looks out over the High Line.

(Left to right at NYFF: Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Olivia Wilde and Spike Jonze.)

STEVE POND: “Her” is beautiful and touching, and its initial screenings in New York and Los Angeles resulted in a barrage of enthusiastic tweets and reviews, with almost no naysayers.

(“I'll go ahead and be the one who couldn't stand ‘Her,'” tweeted In Contention's Kris Tapley – and while there will no doubt be more than one, his math wasn't far off on Saturday.)

But critics and bloggers and tweeters are not Academy voters, and that's where “Her” could face a tougher fight. AMPAS usually prefers its Best Picture nominees to be earnest, not quirky, so “Her” would be a thoroughly unconventional nominee – although its emotional resonance is universal, and its singularity means that it could well appeal to a passionate minority of voters, a good bloc to have given a voting system that rewards passion over consensus in the nominating round.

Jonze's first film, “Being John Malkovich,” was nominated for directing, writing and supporting actress; his second, “Adaptation,” for writing and in three acting categories; his last, “Where the Wild Things Are,” for nothing at all.

I'd say that “Her’ has a strong chance for a writing nomination and a pretty good chance for Best Picture – and if it gets the latter, Jonze could well be one of the five nominated directors, since the film is so clearly his vision.

The acting races are more difficult. In a perfect world, both Phoenix and Johansson would be in the mix, and I'm guessing that some adventurous critics’ groups pay a lot of attention to them. But Phoenix is facing one of the toughest, most competitive Best Actor fields in years, and his low key performance may not be as awards-geared as Chiwetel Ejiofor in “12 Years a Slave,” Robert Redford in “All Is Lost,” Bruce Dern in “Nebraska,” Matthew McConaughey in “Dallas Buyers Club,” Tom Hanks in “Captain Phillips,” Michael B. Jordan in “Fruitvale Station,” Forest Whitaker in “The Butler” and Oscar Isaac in “Inside Llewyn Davis,” to name eight of his competitors.

her-spike-jonze-joaquin-phoenixAs for Johansson, the biggest problem is one that bothers her character at times, too: She doesn't have a body. (In the movie.)

The Academy's Actors Branch has never nominated a voice-only performance, and they didn't go for Andy Serkis’ performance-capture work in “Planet of the Apes” and the “Lord of the Rings” movies. Best Supporting Actress isn't as fearsomely competitive a category as Best Actor, but she'll have to get past the likes of Lupita Nyong'o, Oprah Winfrey, Octavia Spencer, Margo Martindale, June Squibb, Jennifer Lawrence, Julia Roberts and Sally Hawkins, all of whom have the advantage of being able to use their faces and bodies as well as their voices.

Other categories are possible, including production design for the way the film creates a convincing Los Angeles of some unspecified future time (with CG and Singapore making L.A. considerably shinier and denser than it is now). Hoyte Van Hoytema may not be a favorite for cinematography, but he probably has a better chance than he did two years ago, when he was unfairly passed over for “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” And Arcade Fire's music is a central part of the film, though the credit “Additional Music by Owen Pallett” could be troubling – Academy music rules are not amenable to collaborative scores.

Of course, the movie needs to be seen by more people before any of this forecasting can be done with any degree of accuracy – and, to be fair, it really deserves to be seen and enjoyed without worries about how it will fare at awards time.