Spike Jonze: Hollywood's Lonely Boy

The director hopes the high-tech love story of 'her' will make you cry

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Dan Winters for TIME

Spike Jonze is earnest, calm, thoughtful, artistic, lonely, private and a bunch of other things that I don't want from a trickster. From the skate-punk photographer who pretended he was the leader of a group of awful local breakdancers, who co-produces the Jackass movies, who is the creative director of the gonzo-bro news brand Vice, who made the greatest music videos of all time, who was a brilliant actor in Three Kings before deciding he was too cool for acting, who directed the weirdness that is Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, who fought bitterly with his studio to turn Where the Wild Things Are into a kid's movie so true to what it feels like to be a kid that kids didn't see it and who shares a name with the novelty-song big-band leader of the 1940s--I want a little bit of edge. He's so kind that when I complain about how much of a letdown he is, he offers to stab me. "Do we have any large butcher knives or anything like that?" he asks his assistant. A few minutes later, he's lifting my shirt, running the blade near my stomach, and instead of fear, all I'm thinking is that Jonze is going to think I'm fat. "What if I sneezed? What if I burped? What if I hiccupped?" he asks, just as disappointed by his own softness as I am.

He means well. After our long, earnest talk, Jonze agreed to run a therapy session for my lovely wife and me after we saw his new film, Her. He agreed to screen it for a short list of people whose opinions he values--Woody Allen, Bob Dylan, Kanye West, Louis CK, George W. Bush--and let me interview them afterward. He agreed to write half this article, based on his perspective of our conversation. ("i am just now noticing how long his arms are. maybe happy people have long arms," he emailed me.) He bailed on all those things, possibly because he is exhausted from finishing and promoting his movie. But since I'm the only one giving his perspective, I get to posit a different theory: Spike Jonze is earnest. Spike Jonze is tired of gimmicks. Spike Jonze has become Adam Spiegel, the child of upper-class suburbanites from Bethesda, Md.

Her sounds like another meta trickster mind job--a recently divorced guy (Joaquin Phoenix) and his computer's talking, artificial-intelligence-enabled operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) fall in love. But as the subtitle states, it's not a sci-fi movie; it's a "Spike Jonze Love Story"--though I believe it's an Adam Spiegel love story. The high-concept premise fades far quicker than those in Jonze's previous movies, and the small questions about technology are subsumed by big questions about loneliness. The film, which came out in limited release in December and opens nationwide on Jan. 10, was named Best Picture of 2013 by the National Board of Review and tied for first with Gravity on the Los Angeles Film Critics Association list. The Golden Globes, in a move that seems like a publicity stunt for the film, decided that Johansson's disembodied voice was ineligible for a Best Supporting Actress award.

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