Jan. 15 2014 12:00 AM

‘Her,’ ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ have some existential fun


With full acknowledgement to Tyler Durden, the idea that everyone’s a beautiful and unique snowflake is classic, all-American hooey. But why would anybody choose to buy into a reality where the world is an unfair, arbitrary place when self-deception is infinitely more palatable? Two movies, new this week to Lansing audiences — the Coen Brothers’ sardonic “Inside Llewyn Davis” and Spike Jonze’s sci-fi fairytale “Her” — take a crack at unraveling the mystery of life, the universe and everything through inventive storytelling, clockwork script construction and the hottest sex scene you’ll never see.

In Ethan and Joel Coen’s 16th writer/director collaboration, “Inside Llewyn Davis” follows a couch-hopping Greenwich Village folk singer (Oscar Isaac) hanging on by his last frayed guitar string. The titular protagonist has begged, borrowed and, we can only assume, stolen from everyone who’s ever shown more than a passing interest in him or his music. He’s damned good with his music — raw, soulful, elegiac — but he’s also just damned; a string of random, yet seemingly predestined incidences seem to be steering him away from his musical career.

The film’s bleak, desaturated color palate and winsome soundtrack belie the film’s inherent comedy. Isaac, in a breakout role, reveals his character’s amazing capacity for selfishness and self-defeat scene by uncomfortable scene, a de-evolution that’s so pathetic it actually becomes funny. Llewyn lets you down each time he lets himself down until you actually find yourself, much like his sister and his ex, rooting against him.

If you’re not talented, you can always get lucky. If you don’t have talent or luck, hard work will sometimes do it. Llewyn Davis has the raw talent but nothing else — except for his flair for mooching, which, ironically, may be the very thing holding him back.

In Spike Jonze’s “Her,” the main character has a different impediment; Theodore’s (Joaquin Phoenix) impending divorce is so painful that he’s withdrawn emotionally from human interaction. But where the brash Llewyn Davis lashes out at the unfairness of his existence, the sweet, sensitive Theodore has accepted his banality.

The film is set in the near future where early adopters can buy artificially intelligent personal operating systems that work like a personal assistant. He quickly bonds with his OS, who names herself Samantha (dulcetly voiced by Scarlett Johansson) and quickly adapts her personality to complement his.

She playfully rouses him out of bed in the morning, manages his emails and his personal calendar and goads him into dating again. She begins to have feelings, and then feelings about her feelings, which lead to the first stirrings of love between the two that manifests itself into a sexual encounter so erotic the screen goes completely black for most of it. I’ll bet the MPAA still considered an NC-17 rating.

Jonze’s ingenious script cleverly deconstructs concepts like identity and deception, even getting into the metaphysical aspects of being an emotional superintelligence and the illogicalities that arise from being in a committed relationship.

Of course, this is a commentary of our increasing descent into a technology-based existence, where Match.com and Skype have either facilitated or destroyed (depending on your view) human-to-human interaction. Yes, Samantha doesn’t actually exist as a flesh-and-blood person, but that doesn’t make her any less than real. And what’s more real than love?