Awards Season

Define “Original” Screenplay: ‘Her’ Looks An Awful Lot Like ‘Lost In Translation’

Did the Golden Globe–winning, Academy Award–nominated filmmaker crib his story from his ex-wife’s Oscar winner?

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Isolated in a minimalist room above the city, our lonely hero looks onto a twinkling teeming metropolis below. The protagonist, in the midst of a relationship dissolve, alternately lies in bed staring at the wall and leans against various windows as the city blurs by. A connection with a stranger interrupts this desolation – they sing together and tear through the city together, but that togetherness will never be consummated. It’s a brief but transformative union, a burst of color in a pale hazy palette. Ambient indie rock soars above the scene. Fade to black.

Lost in Translation or Her? It’s a trick question—it’s both. The former was made by Sofia Coppola in 2003 and, though she has never said as much, it is believed to be in large part about her relationship with ex-husband Spike Jonze. The latter was made by Jonze in 2013 and, though he has never said as much, it is believed to be in large part about his relationship with Coppola. Her is like a decade-long esprit d’escalier. The question is, did Jonze adopt his ex-wife’s characters, settings, themes, and aesthetic purposefully to respond to LiT in its own language—a sort of response by homage, which didn’t quite come across—or is Her simply an inadvertent pale imitation?

Last month, New York magazine’s Bilge Ebiri wrote a lengthy treatise on the art of homage with reference to David O. Russell’s American Hustle, which critics believe to be a Goodfellas knock-off. “People like to quote T.S. Eliot and say, ‘Good poets borrow, great poets steal.’ Actually, the exact quote is a bit different, and more nuanced. Eliot said: ‘Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different,’” he wrote. “In other words, when Eliot uses the word steal, he’s not just talking about taking, but also about making something your own, building on what you’ve taken, and creating something new out of it.” Instead of building on Coppola’s film, Jonze basically just stuck a high concept on it. He’s an immature poet at best, a bad one at worst.

Her revolves somewhere in the future around a lonely professional letter writer, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), who is in the midst of a divorce from a woman named Catherine (Rooney Mara, chic and brooding like her source) when he falls in love with his sentient computer operating system, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). But then Sam goes haywire and realizes the world is bigger than the both of them and signs out of their relationship. “Sad, kooky, and daunting in equal measure, Her is the right film at the right time,” is how The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane put it. In other words, it’s a plot so on-zeitgeist that anything outside of it does not compute, including the fact that the film has essentially already been made before.

Though plenty of critics have noticed Her’s similarities to LiT, their reviews have largely ignored it. One of the few exceptions is Grantland’s Molly Lambert, who called Jonze’s film “a companion piece” to Coppola’s. “Her and Coppola’s 2003 film Lost in Translation offer a couple of different Rashomon-style takes on the end of what had been a loving and enviable partnership between two artists,” she wrote. In her review, Ann Thompson at Indiewire included a Q&A in which Jonze himself said, “The movie to me is about our desire and need to connect.” Promoting LiT in 2003, Coppola told Filmmaker, “It’s about things being disconnected and looking for moments of connection.” Creepy.

To be fair to Jonze—if I can literally take Theodore as his voice for a moment—he does say in Her that he and his wife grew up together and informed each other’s work. It is only natural that people with similar sensibilities would be drawn to one another, and plenty of couples have produced work that is comparable. Some of Mike Mills’ Beginners (like the mute first meeting between the two lovers) reminded me of his wife Miranda July’s performance work. The paintings of married artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera have often been compared. And then there’s the music of Courtney Love, some of which is so reminiscent of late husband Kurt Cobain’s that he is thought to have written it for her before he died. I think it’s safe to say Coppola did not direct Her, but she could have.

Having seen LiT so many times, I was concerned I was simply projecting it onto Her—I hadn’t read any reviews, but I knew the filmmakers had been married—but the parallels just kept piling up. Even the action overlapped—the botched call girl date, the ditzy love interest (Olivia Wilde in Her, Anna Faris in LiT), the Asian settings (Coppola filmed in Tokyo, Jonze in Shanghai). The coup de grace, of course, was Johansson, the physical connection, so to speak, between the two films. You may not be able to see her, but, as Manohla Dargis wrote in the New York Times, that doesn’t matter. “It’s crucial that each time you hear Ms. Johansson in Her you can’t help but flash on her lush physicality, too, which helps fill in Samantha and give this ghostlike presence a vibrant, palpable form,” she wrote. It also gives it the presence of Charlotte. In a recent Jonze profile, Vulture’s Mark Harris wrote, “the decision to cast Johansson in a story of lonely-guy emotional displacement places Her in a kind of fascinating inadvertent dialogue with Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation.” But Jonze is no idiot. He knew what he was doing when he hired Johansson.

It’s reasonable to expect that Her’s director was keenly attuned to all aspects of his film, particularly since this one is a lot less complex than many of its predecessors. He has adapted what many believe to be genius-level writing— Charlie Kaufman’s—for the big screen. Twice. But perhaps he’s a director who needs a strong screenwriter to hang his film on. Her is Jonze’s first solo-written feature and it looks nothing like his Kaufman collaborations—Being John Malkovich, Adaptation—which have a unifyingly quirky and somewhat messy post-modern feel. There’s nothing messy about Her, it’s sleek and simple like a Mac Air (supporters believe Apple inspired the film’s aesthetic). Its writing is equally simple, but not in a good way.

Neither Coppola (by her own admission) nor Jonze were born to dialogue, but Her’s is particularly weak. Without Kaufman’s voice, Jonze is forced to lean on his own, and true to his alter ego’s letter writing gig, his script often sounds like a Hallmark card. “I feel like I can be anything with you,” Theodore tells Samantha. “I’ve never loved anyone the way I loved you.” Other times the writing smacks of immaturity. “Sometimes I think I have felt everything I’m ever going to feel, and from here on out, I’m not going to feel anything new. Just lesser versions of what I’ve already felt,” Theodore tells Samantha at one point. That would be permissible in a John Hughes movie, but…in fact, didn’t Ally Sheedy say virtually the same thing in The Breakfast Club?

Aside from the dialogue and the cheap imitation Coppola, Her recalls—both my date and The Hollywood Reporter commented on it—another quirky filmmaker, Michel Gondry, specifically his sci-fi romance Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. As THR put it, Her’s “offbeat romanticism and evanescent stylistic flourishes” are very Gondry. Slightly less subtle were the film’s profusion of homogenous flashback montages—all blinding light, close ups, and caresses—which were a little too reminiscent of Terrence Malick a little too often.

The best moment in Her lives entirely in its own world. In what appeared to be an improvised scene, Theodore attends a friend’s daughter’s birthday and gives the little girl a dress. After trying it on, she sits next to Theodore as he holds his phone up so Samantha can see her. He tells the little girl that Samantha is his girlfriend. The little girl flips the phone around, clicking it through its various configurations, presumably expecting Samantha to appear. Looking off camera, no doubt at Jonze, she appears genuinely puzzled by the idea that someone is inside the box. “I live in the computer,” Samantha explains, “Where do you live?” The little girl replies, “I live in my house.”

It’s a moment in which two alien realities collide to form a common ground. Samantha and the birthday girl are not so different, both confined in their own realities, both happy—at that moment—in their own space. You only wish Jonze could have felt the same way.

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