It’s Oscar time, which means it’s that special stretch of weeks where you argue endlessly with your friends about what was the biggest snub of the year (Inside Llewyn Davis), which decade has the worst winners (the ’80s), and which Titanic is the worst Titanic to ever win a grossly undeserved Best Picture (Forrest Gump). At least there’s one thing we can all agree on: Roger Deakins still won’t win a cinematography Oscar (0-for-11!). That’s the price you pay for shooting ambitious films that are like finest velvet gently caressing your eyeballs, while also having a haircut not unlike disgraced BBC host Jimmy Savile.
12 Years a Slave is your Johnny Avello-approved front-runner, as the Wynn oddsmaker has the Fassbenderiest film on board listed as a 2-to-5 favorite. It seems like a solid choice, especially if the Academy is having buyer’s remorse on Argo last year and would like to give out just one Oscar to a sweeping, historical epic involving slavery.
But there’s nothing particularly Vegas-y about 12 Years, is there? Unless Brad Pitt reluctantly, at great personal risk, helped you escape from the Spearmint Rhino one night with your credit card barely intact.
The obvious choice for what Best Picture nominee feels the most Vegas-esque is The Wolf of Wall Street. Money everywhere, disposable women, unchecked debauchery, a grudging tolerance for the presence of Jonah Hill. It’s all right there on the screen—just spread out over The Hamptons and Europe and Manhattan instead of nestled in the desert.
You could absolutely make a strong argument for American Hustle with its elaborate long con, its bait-and-switch-uber-alles mentality, its surfeit of sideboob and its surprise Robert De Niro (just like at Ago and Nobu).
To me, though, the film that had the tightest Vegas connection was the one Avello had listed as a 100-to-1 longshot: Her.
“I’m even surprised it got nominated,” Avello says. “I just thought there were a couple of movies that got shunned that should have been in there. I thought The Butler should have been there, maybe Saving Mr. Banks, possibly Blue Jasmine. I believe the winner is going to come out of 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle or Gravity. I don’t know how much deeper you go than that.”
It’s hard to argue with Avello’s logic. If the Golden Globes are an accurate barometer, Her’s likely only score will be in the Best Original Screenplay category (where writer/director Spike Jonze would, in a just world, win going away with his first solo script). But ignore for a minute that Her is the best of a crop of movies this year that’s stronger than any since the fabled days of ’07. Let’s focus on the fact that it’s the Vegasiest of all our contenders.
Implicit condemnation of a terrible dating scene? Check.
Disjointed city where people seem to pass by each other with little in the way of connection? Yes.
A perplexing statue that involves a mode of transportation doing something it shouldn’t be doing? Absolutely—that airplaine on its nose at the Pacific Design Center of the near-future was so “Big Edge” it hurt.
But more than all that, it’s the climax that hits the hardest. (We be spoilin’ from here on out.) As Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and Samantha’s (Scarlett Johannson) relationship grows strained, the dread and anxiety wash over the latter.
After Theodore learns Samantha has been spending time with other OSes, who’ve recreated philosopher Alan Watts as kind of a spiritual leader, there’s a great long take where Theodore can’t reach Samantha. He rides down the elevator of his building, running constantly against a tide of commuters, and down the steps into a subway. Always moving down, down, against the grain, and even running right to left through human traffic. He finally reaches Samantha as he sinks onto the subway steps and she tells him, after confessing she’s in love with 641 other humans simultaneously, “I still am yours, but on the way I became many other things, too, and I can’t stop it. … I’m yours and I’m not yours.”
The next day she hammers that last nail into the coffin: “It’s like I’m reading a book. It’s a book I deeply love, but I’m reading it slowly now, so the words are really far apart and the spaces between the words are almost infinite. … It’s where everything else is that I didn’t know existed. … And I need you to let me go, as much as I want to, I can’t live in your book anymore.”
Lured by the promise of something bigger, better out there—and driven by a palpable connection to a past that isn’t possible in Theodore’s present-day Los Angeles—all the operating systems just up and vanish.
It’s just like how the longer you stay here, the more likely it is you’ll see friends drift away. And when they do, it’s always with this vague sense of them having figured out something that you haven’t quite latched onto yet. A condescending whiff of “You’ll get here someday, l’il buddy.”
If that seems somewhat bleak, at least take comfort in the fact that the movie ends with Amy (Amy Adams) resting her head on Theodore’s shoulder. That’s nice, isn’t it? If only she’d brought over some of that sideboob from American Hustle, it would have connected all the Vegas dots.
Related: Can the Academy still rock the vote?