Saving Mr. Jonze: An question of Adaptation

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There were two, and only two transcendent Spike Jonze movie moments in the year 2013. The first was Matt Johnson’s wonderful impression of the lounge singer in  “Malcovich, Malcovich” scene from Being John Malcovich in The Dirties. (Do I remember that scene repeating unnecessarily though, somewhat diluting the effect?) The second, and probably best Spike Jonze moment was his role as penny-stock hawking Dwayne in The Wolf of Wall Street. I’ve always enjoyed Jonze’s acting, (though he was essentially playing a version of Richard Koufey).    

Am I forgetting anything? Was there a transcendent scene from her? (Waiting). Anything? One moment that stood above the rest? Not including the SexyKitten scene? (more of a Kristen Wiig moment than anything).

There were any number of interesting vignettes in the movie her, but in my opinion, the film on the whole was missing a crucial element. It seemed to stand outside of itself, not daring to put real heart, and of course, feeling into making an actual human connection with its audience. It wasn’t until I watched, of all films, Saving Mr. Banks,that I realized that reason why. It is because her suffers from a lack of adaptation.

Being John Malcovich, Adaptation, and even Where the Wild Things Are gave Spike Jonze a chance to fall back on previous material. Adaptation is about the very idea of bringing secondary material to screen, (and, to a degree, the puppets in Being John Malcovich serving as the precursor to the portal to John Malcovich’s head serving a similar purpose). For Where the Wild Things Are, Jonze had the beloved children’s book, (this should have been an early clue), as well as Dave Eggers as a co-writer. But in her, Jonze stands alone, as solo writer and director.

The idea that Jonze wrote and directed the film, using no previous source material, (not even Siri), gave him the chance to truly lay himself bare on the screen. He could have, and probably should have transofrmed himself into an auteur, giving rise to a Spike Jonze film being totally representative of the man himself. Was it him? No, it was her. 

Who is Theodore Twombly? Why is he given such a silly name, (and an alliterative one at that)? What time in the near-future does this film take place? What’s with Theodore’s mustache, (and Paul’s)? Why do people in this timeline wear high-waisted pants? What was going on with the colours of shirts, the bright yellows and reds favoured by Theodore? Is this Breaking Bad? Most importantly, what can we make of Theodore? Is he worthy of sympathy, or scorn? Is he a hero, an anti-hero, or hell-bent of self-destruction?

My suspicion is that Spike Jonze, (real name, Adam Spiegel), would ask us to make our own conclusions. But, in a sense, this is the failure of her. Every film is as much about the film-maker as the subject, and this proves even more vital when a director and writer are the same person. Though I enjoy it, I cannot abide by the theory that Jones is Twombly, and Sofia Coppola is Catherine. Because this theory forgets that the movie is about her, (and in my opinion, the “her” of the title is as much Amy as it is Samantha.)  

But let’s look at Saving Mr. Banks for an example of a successful adaptation. Is Saving Mr. Banks a good movie? Oh, Lord, no. The scene in which Emma Thompson’s P.L. Travers passes a list of handicapped people that succeeded to Paul Giamatti’s limo driver character was achingly sentimental. If Giamatti had extended his “My sentimentality stretches the length of a coin” line from 12 Years a Slave, I would have given the movie a standing ovation. In fact, the entire movie’s interchanges between Giamatti’s Ralph, (I guess), and Thompson’s Travers were joyless, (but not in the SadPaulGiamatti way), anachronistic, (it’s been pointed out that “No Problemo” was not spoken in the 1960’s), and above all, not actually true. So why bother? 

Oh, and the flashbacks. The film seemed to follow the philosophy that if you make a point once, make it another four or five times, (even though the reveal did surprise). However, somewhere in the muckity muck of sentimentality, there was a gem of a movie, and most importantly a successful adaptation of a successful adapation, (though I am fairly sure that P.L. Travers would not have approved). The issue at hand, of turning a popular series of books into a movie, was quite fascinating. Every time that we were in the room with Thompson, Bradley Whitford, B.J. Novak, and Jason Schwartzman, there was a kind of magic. Disney magic? The idea of appeasing an author vehemently opposed to deviating from the source material, and somehow creating a successful film presented layer upon layer of metatextuality. And Emma Thomson was simply outstanding.

Despite its massive flaws, the film knew what it was, (or at least, I read it that way), and stayed with me long after the inevitable decline, (Travers tearing up at the performance Let’s Go Fly a Kite, once again, overwhelmed with its sentimentality). But at least the audience on a weekday afternoon seemed to enjoy it, and I enjoyed watching them sing and sway to it). Oh, and we definitely did not need to Save Mr. Hanks, who was surprisingly heart-warming as Mr. Disney, (perhaps this was because the film left out his views on certain practices, and I am not talking about his smoking. I also would have loved to have seen the film explore P.L. Travers and her preference for revolutionary sexuality, but perhaps that would have been expecting too much. Not everything can be saved.

And yet, very little of her has saved in my memory. Despite this film’s honesty, I still could not keep up with the Jonze(s). I would have loved to see Spike Jonze enter his own portal. Mr. Jonze, according to me, could have been a big(ger) star.

 

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