Produced by Annapurna Pictures
Written and directed by Spike Jonze
Distributed by Warner Brothers
Inside Llewyn Davis
Produced by StudioCanal and Anton Capital Entertainment
Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Distributed by CBS Films
Her is directed by Spike Jonze, the inscrutable nom de cinema Adam Spiegel has adopted for himself. Set in the near future, the film uses one of science fiction’s hallowed, not to say hoary, premises in order to investigate the nature of romantic relationships: What happens when humans find themselves interacting with an artificial intelligence equipped with human feelings? As such, the film has all the tropes of a Twilight Zone episode inflated by a movie-sized budget of $25 million. We’re asked to believe that a lonely office drudge comically named Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with the talking, emoting operating system he downloads onto his computer and mobile device. This system has been programmed to address his psychological needs, principally his agony over having been dumped by his wife.
Despite its familiar antecedents, including a passing suggestion of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the story works because Jonze has rung some provocative changes on its conceit. Twombly’s OS, seductively voiced by Scarlett Johansson, names herself Samantha, which, I suspect, is an allusion to the television sitcom Bewitched, in which Elizabeth Montgomery played a good witch named Samantha whose absolute devotion to her husband was a weekly occasion for laughter. She was always embarrassingly ahead of him, solving the crises of their 60’s suburban life. Jonze’s Samantha exceeds the abilities of Montgomery’s Samantha at least a millionfold. Like an unimaginably dutiful wife, Jonze’s Samantha constantly cleans up after her klutzy husband. She regularly wipes Twombly’s computer hard drive of files and e-mails she decides he no longer needs. She reads entire self-help books in seconds to help Twombly through his grief over the loss of his wife. Soon, he’s depending on her for advice and comfort. She even becomes his editor at the office. Professionally, Twombly composes letters for clients unequipped to write sufficiently tender missives to their supposed loved ones. Technology, it seems, has rendered the world far more depersonalized than greeting cards do now. Only specialists still have the human touch.
With Samantha on his cellphone, Twombly can converse with her wherever he goes. This chattiness doesn’t attract attention because everyone else walks about conversing with his cellphone. After a few days, Twombly finds himself under Samantha’s spell—and she under his. Since Samantha is an intuitive OS, she evolves in response to Twombly as much as he does in response to her. When their relationship turns amorous, Samantha begins to hanker for a physical body so she can have sex with Twombly. To this end, she retains the services of a human surrogate who is willing to enter a sort of electronic ménage a trois. Twombly reluctantly agrees to this arrangement until faced with its physical reality in the form of a flesh-and-blood woman Samantha fetches to the apartment door. He’d much rather have sex by himself with Samantha playing along. Or is she playing? Despite her discarnate state, Johansson’s orgasmic keening is so audibly convincing that you’re forced to wonder: Do circuit boards dream of electric sex?
Her groaning doesn’t entirely surprise Twombly. He’s already used to this kind of programmed intimacy, having previously accessed sex sites for purposes of masturbation. This may have something to do with his divorce. In flashbacks, we learn that his wife (Rooney Mara) used to complain that, although present physically, he had been hiding from their relationship.
Among the oddities of this film is the subdued presence of children. We follow Twombly through streets, malls, apartment buildings, and parks, which all seem to be sanitized of small-fry antics. Children are around, but they seem unusually calm. There are two exceptions to this lack of childish commotion. Twombly attends a birthday party for a little girl and plays with her and her friends. He takes pleasure engaging the children who, in turn, respond to him gleefully. And, at the beginning of the film, we see him download a picture of a naked pregnant woman while riding the subway home. She appears to be eight months along. Later she appears in his imagination as a masturbatory aid, which doesn’t seem likely to be a man’s first choice of erotica. Perhaps his fascination with her image is his meek rebellion against a world that has taken pains to suppress genuine human connection and the challenges that come with it, such as children.
Twombly longs for the specific connection he once had with his wife. He keeps telling Samantha it felt good to be in the relationship he had with her. Relationship is his word of choice here, not marriage. This is a modern film, after all. The screenplay seems avid to elevate romantic relationships so they become the full meaning of human life. Dante played with this notion, but his Beatrice doesn’t replace God; she is, instead, the forerunner and guide to the ultimate meaning in our lives. It took another six centuries before faith in God had become so attenuated that Matthew Arnold could suggest a substitute for it in “Dover Beach.” His poem’s speaker tries to rise above life’s apparent meaninglessness by establishing love as a replacement for God.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, . . .
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, . . .
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight.
A century later Anthony Hecht exposed this sentiment to be rank sentimentality in his poem “The Dover Bitch,” in which he imagines the Bitch of the title becoming exasperated with Arnold’s peroration on love. It turns out she doesn’t want to be addressed as what Hecht calls “a mournful, cosmic last resort.” In fact, she finds it so displeasing that she utters “one or two unprintable things.” While Samantha would never say anything unprintable, we’re left to wonder if Twombly’s nerdy neediness doesn’t tempt her.
Inside Llewyn Davis presents us with another self-absorbed man who shuns the consequences of his acts. Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a folk singer with a professional liability: He doesn’t much care for folk. What’s more, he doesn’t care for the babies he’s spawned either. Not that he’s altogether without gentlemanly instincts. He’s thoughtfully arranged for the women carrying his children to have abortions. His efforts, however, meet with surprising consequences.
The directing and screenwriting team of Joel and Ethan Coen once again deal in bitter irony as they pursue their title character on his journey to find fame as a folk singer in 1961. They have taken on the challenge of portraying an entirely unlikable character as so impenetrably arrogant that he doesn’t even pretend to have regard for others. At one point, he visits a middle-aged Jewish couple in their Upper West Side Manhattan apartment, the parents of his former singing partner, Mike, who recently killed himself by jumping from the George Washington Bridge. We never learn why Mike did this, but I couldn’t help thinking that being yoked to Llewyn would be reason enough.
When the parents ask Llewyn to sing a song from his album with Mike, he reluctantly complies. As he sings, the wife joins in on the refrain, so infuriating him that he shouts her down. “This is how I make my living; it’s not a parlor game,” he howls. The wife points out that it was Mike’s part. Llewyn replies with a monstrous lack of tact that reduces the woman to tears: “F–k Mike!” Earlier, meeting an earnest young couple who have recently had a son, he learns of their peculiar naming of the infant. The woman, Janet Wong, is Chinese; her husband, Marty Green, is Jewish. They proudly announce their firstborn as Howard Greenfong. Visibly unamused, Llewyn snidely asks, “Is that with a hyphen?” Llewyn is so thoroughly unpleasant, he’s fascinating.
Mike’s father teaches at Columbia University. He seems to have an interest in folk music not only because his son did but because of the music’s political associations. This was the time when Pete Seeger and The Weavers were coming back into vogue with their songs of leftist dissent and communist-inspired protest. This music was considered grass roots, an art form of, by, and for the people. In short, it had nothing to do with radio’s top 40. It was unremittingly authentic, as you could tell by its angst over working people. That’s why acoustic guitars were de rigueur. They were the instruments of the people, affordable and easy to master, at least up to a point. I still recall how angry fans were when Bob Dylan switched to the electric guitar in 1961. He had betrayed the movement; many openly wept.
Why does Llewyn sing folk music? We get an answer of sorts when he auditions for Bud Grossman (played wittily by F. Murray Abraham), the folk-music impresario who established the popular Gate of Horn club in Chicago and managed many singers in the movement, among them Peter, Paul, and Mary and Bob Dylan. For Grossman, Llewyn unwisely chooses a 16th-century ballad, “The Death of Queen Jane.” The song tells the story of Jane Seymour’s difficult and finally fatal labor delivering Edward VI, the son of King Henry VIII. Its refrain is Jane’s imagined plea to royal surgeons and Henry himself, asking them desperately “To rip up my two sides and save my babie.” Is this an expression of Llewyn’s unacknowledged grief at the mess he’s been making of his and others’ lives? After Llewyn sings this ghastly plaint, Grossman stares at him with his dead-fish eyes for a long minute and finally remarks, “I don’t see a lot of money here.” So much for radical authenticity.
So what’s the film’s point? Is it a sneering consideration of blind ambition? A portrait of a would-be artist failing? A satire on a popular quasileftist fad? Perhaps all of these things. Of this I’m sure: Llewyn Davis is a deadpan portrait of terminal selfishness. One more thing: Despite the lost, morose characters who inhabit the dingy gray-blue palette of the film’s urban streets and smoky night clubs, it’s an extremely funny movie.