Her | Director Spike Jonze | Score: 7.8
So for once, we have a vision of the near future that doesn’t involve a dystopian, post-nuclear holocaust, or filthy beggars in dirty shrouds preaching about the new god they made. No, this vision features a clean, airy L.A., populated by relatively normal seeming people dressed in bright primary colored shirts and slightly high-waisted pants. Hell, there even seems to be a reasonable abundance of creative-type jobs for people to work (depressingly, that’s how we know it’s a fantasy).
It’s also true, writer/director Spike Jonze’s vision of L.A. isn’t entirely a utopia, at least for poor, bedraggled Theodore (a mustachioed Joaquin Phoenix). He’s a depressed writer for a website devoted to crafting sweetly personal letters for people who don’t have the time or ability to do it themselves. He’s also estranged from his beautiful wife (Rooney Mara), who is anxiously waiting for him to sign their divorce papers. Listless and mopey, Theodore spends a majority of his time in his gorgeous high-rise apartment playing giant, all-encompassing video games, and calling a virtual lonely-hearts sex line late at night when things get too jammed up in his head.
He’s not a bad dude, by any stretch, in fact he’s sweet natured and intuitive, he’s just on a bad run, and can’t see his way out of it. That is, until on a whim he invests in a new OS boasting of an impressive AI. When he first logs in, he’s not sure what to make of the expressive, throaty female voice he hears, who names herself Samantha (voice of Scarlett Johansson), but before too long he becomes entranced by her kindness, humor and devotion to him. Soon, the two begin to embark on a romantic relationship of sorts. And yes, I know exactly what kind of movie you’re picturing now: Some kind of loony James Carey comedy where he has to hide this peculiar secret and everyone finds out anyway and a bunch of people end up falling into a swimming pool at the company party.
But nothing could be further from this film’s intention. Rather than Theodore and Samantha’s romance being some kind of twisted outlier, it becomes clear that with the release of this ground-breaking OS, many such couples have sprung up. It’s become a thing, you see, one not too far out of the realm of possibility, given our ever-increasing devotion to technology and our increased solipsism as a result.
Not only does Theodore’s best friend, Amy (Amy Adams), totally understand his new relationship, she herself has embarked on a similar course with her OS in the wake of her marriage crumbling. As far as Theodore and Samantha’s relationship goes, it has all the elements of new romance we’ve all dearly experienced, including the many soaring highs and the crippling, confusing lows. Understandably, Samantha starts out as a romantic neophyte, soaking up as much information about the life going on around her as possible (a very advanced system she can read entire books on the subject in a matter of microseconds), but being both blessed and cursed with a human-like self-awareness, she eventually grows beyond those basic parameters and begins to challenge Theodore in much the same way his ex-wife did, forcing him to open up to new possibilities.
Jonze, who’s made a career out of putting his vivid visual metaphors into work — in the ’90s, some of his music videos for Weezer and Beastie Boys became the standards of the genre — has crafted a powerful and potent analogy for our tech-obsessed age, but the true power of the film comes from its emotional complexity. Jonze is not content to play a one-note melody, he follows the concept to its logical conclusion, his beautiful, touching film becoming ever more poignant in the process. It might have a simple enough logline (a man falls in love with his computer), but that barely suggests the depth and range of compassion steeped into its frame.
Beyond the striking visual production — Jonze is an invertebrate visual stylist able to make salient use of small visual tropes (steam emanating from a manhole cover, the swirling dust motes in a strong band of sunlight) to suggest his character’s mental state — the film lives and dies on the strength of its leading man, and here, Phoenix proves yet again to be one of the more dynamic and soulful actors in the current Hollywood canon. Theodore is easy to misjudge — as evidenced by a blind date with a gorgeous beauty (Olivia Wilde) that goes horribly wrong — a sweetly perceptive man who could come across as creepy and unsettling if misinterpreted. His nature is far too sweet to lose our sympathy, but he’s real enough to make horrible, callous-seeming mistakes and have to live with the consequences.
Equally significant is the chemistry between Theodore and Samantha, and that too is pretty flawless. Johansson, though never seen, does absolutely superb voice work, a performance that has made more than a few critics suggest she should be considered come awards season. Does it help that the audience can readily picture the gorgeous Johansson, one of Hollywood’s sexiest starlets, as she speaks? Of that I have no doubt, but so deftly rendered and relatable is their relationship this knowledge does not detract one iota from the significance of their connection. As things begin to change and their relationship starts to falter (“You sound distracted,” Samantha says mournfully towards the end, “so we’ll talk later?”), the pain is all-too-real and recognizable. Even as the film is actually pointing out just how far removed from our basic humanity our technology is taking us.
Jonze has made a stunning love-story for the techno age, and despite the obvious pulls otherwise, he avoids hiding behind either direct satire or cheap laughs (although he himself plays a small cameo as a rude, abusive video game character that’s absolutely hilarious), and in a pleasingly understated manner goes for something a good deal more elusive and sacrosanct: The very nature of human love itself.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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