It would be a bit disingenuous and certainly unfair for me to call Spike Jonze’s “Her” an answer to Sofia Coppola’s 2003 film, “Lost in Translation.” Mainly, doing so would undercut what Jonze has accomplished with “Her.” (There will be an italicized “but” coming soon enough.)
“Her” (which finally opens nationwide this week) depicts a romance between a sad sack named Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with a highly advanced operating system named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). It’s presented in a way that’s not only believable, but I am now convinced that this will happen in reality, if it hasn’t already (I’m not judging, I just can’t imagine Siri providing entertaining conversation beyond the second hour of the relationship -- directions to the nearest Fazoli’s, notwithstanding).
But, it’s difficult to ignore the connection between these two films.
In 2003, Sofia Coppola released “Lost in Translation,” and most viewers pretty much immediately assumed that the characters of Charlotte (yes, Johansson) and John (Giovanni Ribisi), who are going through some serious marital strife in the film, were actually avatars for Coppola and then-husband Jonze, who were in the midst of their own marital discourse. (The fact that John was a music video director who sounded an awful lot like Spike Jonze didn’t really do a lot to dissuade people.)
Coppola addressed this conception in a 2003 Entertainment Weekly interview:
"It's not Spike," insists Coppola. "But there are elements of him there, elements of experiences. There are elements of me in all the characters."
That’s about as close to saying, “Yes, of course it is, are you insane?,” as Coppola can get without an actual confirmation. (Coppola and Jonze’s marriage ended in 2003.)
In “Lost in Translation,” Charlotte is in Japan with John for one of his video shoots when she turns her attention to an older man, Bob Harris (Bill Murray, in an Academy Award-nominated performance), for what turns out to be a deeply emotional, yet non-sexual relationship. It should be noted that Bob is married, has children and is also a famous actor. If Charlotte is thinking that she has a future with Bob, this is a very unrealistic expectation.
In “Her,” Theodore’s marriage is all but over, all that’s left to do is sign the divorce papers. The final meeting between Theodore and his soon-to-be-ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) to sign those very papers feels so intimate that while watching it I almost felt guilty, as if I was eavesdropping on a private conversation.
In Mark Harris’ excellent profile of Jonze, he makes this same observation. “The protagonist of ‘Her’ and his creator are both fortyish men who are divorced from high-achieving women, and 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.’”
It should be noted, Catherine is a published author and during the divorce-papers scene, the word “book” is easily exchangeable with the word “film.” Theodore and Charlotte even discuss her relationship with critics.
Does Jonze admit that there are at least “elements” of his relationship with Coppola scattered throughout “Her”? Jonze is certainly playing things a bit more coy than Coppola did. As Harris also notes, “Jonze doesn’t discuss his movies as if they were fragments of an emotional autobiography.” But, boy, it sure is difficult to hear Catherine tell Theodore, “You always wanted to have a wife without the challenges of actually dealing with anything real,” and not think that there’s something deeply personal there.
And, like Charlotte’s relationship with Bob in “Lost in Translation," Theodore’s relationship with Samantha in “Her” is even more unrealistic. These are both movies about married people finding a connection with someone or something that sure feels real -- but, in the end, isn’t.
“Her” and “Lost In Translation” would make an excellent and quite beautiful double feature. It would almost act as a real version of a movie like “He Said, She Said,” only without the shtick and with two directors working at the top of their game. It’s not only the relationship between the two directors –- and their use of Johansson in both films -- and how that forms the relationships in each film. It’s also that visually the two films are strikingly similar, with beautiful shots of forlorn cityscapes (Los Angeles and Tokyo, respectively) dominating the frame.
It’s just a shame that even if these two directors don’t belong together in real life, neither of them will ever admit that these two films belong together.
Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.