Saturday, January 11, 2014

Movie Review: Her


Spike Jonze has made a career out of directing films that are hard to define but ooze philosophical cool from their pores. He is the director of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation and most recently 2009's Where The Wild Things Are, which took Maurice Sendak's 338-word children's story and transformed it into a phantasmagorical tapestry of childhood existentialism.

In his latest, Her, Joaquin Phoenix stars as Theodore Twombly, a sensitive writer nursing the wounds of a broken marriage. To call him "lonely" is an understatement, as we watch Theodore punch the time card at his job – where he composes other people's love notes for them – and instruct his phone to play a "melancholy song" for his walk home through the brightly-lit streets of a futuristic Los Angeles (via Shanghai) where high-waisted hipsterism has apparently swallowed the world whole.

The catalyst that disrupts his funk arrives in the form of Samantha, an artificially intelligent upgrade to his operating system that functions as the great-great-great-granddaughter of the iPhone's SIRI. Samantha is charming, funny, inquisitive, spontaneous and capable of evolving independent of and beyond the intention of her creators. With each new experience with Theodor, she adapts and extends her own understanding of the world, feeling both excitement and surprise at her own potential.
Theodore and Samantha's conversations make up the bulk of Her, almost like Before Sunrise for the digital age with Celine offscreen. Theodore has trepidations at first, but comes to accept the increasingly-romantic nature of their relationship, slowly coming to grips with the myriad challenges that come from having dating a person who is not, in actuality, a person.

Despite its futuristic setting the movie reads like a heartfelt commentary on today's hyper-connected digital world, where texts and snapchats have supplanted personal interaction. We identify with Theodore, a man desperate for connection, who ultimately finds one in the form of a blinking red light and a voice in his ear. At first Samantha seems like the product of clever invention, a program designed to mimic human nature, but before long she is a fully-realized identity, capable of insecurities, jealousies and dreams.

Their relationship is contrasted with that of a platonic and supportive friend, played by Amy Adams, and Theodore's ex-wife, played by Rooney Mara and existing largely in dreamlike flashback sequences of lost love. Theodore tells Samantha that he hid himself from his wife, but misses sharing his life with someone and as he makes that confession we see that Samantha, or a being like her, is simultaneously capable of being more and less than a flesh-and-blood human.

Her is a beautiful and deeply emotional film. The world that Jonze creates is brilliant in its detail and simplicity with a futuristic setting that is constantly apparent – through the subtle hints of advanced technology, wardrobe and atmosphere – but organic and familiar. Those details, along with Arcade Fire's atmospheric score, paint a backdrop that enhance, but never distract from, the characters onscreen.

Phoenix portrays his character with perfect sincerity, conveying so much of what is left unsaid through gesture and mannerism. And Scarlett Johansson, as the voice of Samantha, delivers a knockout in her much-buzzed-about performance. In the months leading up to the release of Her, many critics have called for an unprecedented Best Actress nomination for her voice work. I admit to being initially dismissive of such talk, but having now seen the film I'm tempted to reconsider.

Grade: A
*Her opens nationwide on January 10

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