If only Spike Jonze had made "Where the Wild Things Are" with robots instead of animatronically enhanced animals.
The eclectic auteur hasn't been on the minds of many filmgoers or buyers coming into Sundance, maybe because his festival entry was nestled in a shorts program (and debuting opposite the much anticipated, and eventually much maligned, "Howl" on Thursday night), maybe because his most recent effort kind of bungled a children's classic.
But after his extended short "I'm Here" screened first Thursday night and again Friday morning in Park City, all that's changed. We were hardly alone in thinking that, even at this early stage of Sundance, his movie may be among the best pieces of filmmaking that plays the festival this year.
The narrative for "I'm Here," which Jonze wrote and directed, is at once high-concept and difficult to explain. In a world that looks much like our own, robots mingle among the rest of us as vaguely second-class citizens. One robot in particular, a mild-mannered machine named Sheldon (Andrew Garfield) leads a humdrum life, doing little but taking the bus to and from his menial library job and coming home at night to sleep (er, recharge) before starting it all over again the next day. His life changes, however, when he meets a punky young femmebot, and the turns their relationship takes are fresh, funny, soulful, Jonezian
(let's just say it involves robot amputation, among other things).
(Side note: Sundance routinely brings in some great emerging filmmakers and plays their shorts in a block. This year organizers brought some great established filmmakers and played their shorts in a block, and the results have been solid. Several of the other movies sharing screen time with Jonze had their virtues -- a stylish if unevenly executed animated critique of consumerist culture called "Logorama," a thoughtful if not entirely surprising border-policy documentary "The Fence" and a pleasantly absurdist Scandinavian effort called "Splitage" -- though none was as strong as "I'm Here.")
Comparisons for the film to "Wall-E," David Cronenberg's "existenZ" and a Jonze-shot Ikea commercial
all rolled off festgoers' lips, and the movie evokes all of that, but also something far more original. While it employs the same tech guru
who brought the "Wild Things" creatures to life, the film returns the director to his "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation" days -- it's bristling with ideas and imagination, but doesn't forget the heart either. And it inadvertently points up the problems with "Wild Things," which short-shrifted most of these elements. It's almost as though with less time and a lower budget (not to mention a lack of studio interference; Absolut financed this movie, and clearly left him alone), Jonze was able to infuse his work with a lot more energy.
For Jonze fans and skeptics, "I'm Here" shows, after the dispiriting example of "Wild Things," that he can skillfully write a movie without Charlie Kaufman. With Jonze still contemplating his next film, one can only hope it's as good as this short -- or, better, that he decides to develop this short into a feature.
Photo: Andrew Garfield (Sheldon). Photo Credit: "I'm Here."
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