In Her, filmmaker Spike Jonze treats us to a vision of the near-future where we meet sensitive writer Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a man in the midst of a lonely depression as a result of his impending divorce. Theodore is a hardcore tech-geek of this Apple-brand future world, which is why it’s no surprise that he’s lured in by the debut of “OS 1,” a new artificially intelligent computer operating system.
Theodore’s A.I. companion quickly fashions an identity for herself as “Samantha” (Scarlett Johansson) and goes about trying to improve Theo’s life, as well as his sullen disposition. Before long, Theo finds that he is connecting to Samantha better than he has any of the real women he’s encountered; but when man and computer begin an earnest love connection, the ramifications of that “love” will impact them in ways neither of them ever expected.
Spike Jonze is famous for his high-concept films like Being John Malkovich or Where the Wild Things Are that use very unorthodox premises to provide for real and relevant insight into the human mind and/or soul, as it relates to connective thread of life experience. In Her, the goal is to examine the process of loving through a non-traditional, non-physical relationship, set within a world that borders eerily close to our tech-infused (and as a result, alienating) modern reality. But while Jonze does indeed succeed in creating a very engaging and fresh twist on an old tale, the resulting commentary may feel overly-familiar (and somewhat predictable) by the end of the journey.
On a directorial level, Jonze has once again brought his unique visual creativity to life in a very grounded way. The future he imagines looks all-too-real and organically grown out of the world we live in now – seemingly familiar while still providing the technological flourishes that make sci-fi interesting and thought-provoking when compared to current reality. The bright color schemes, sepia-washed cinematography and scene-to-scene composition combine for a visual palette that is captivating without being distracting, and the world of the film is, in general, a fun sandbox to play in while getting deeper into the emotional character story.
The script was also written by Jonze, and it progresses according to a carefully-controlled tempo and smart series of stops along the narrative and character arcs, providing strong development by way of some episodic tangents into Theodore’s attempts to reclaim some form of love in his life. This an intimate, honest, often funny, charming and very insightful story that manages to strike some pretty universal emotional chords. However, at the same time, the script also rehashes many familiar tropes used by any number of previous books or films about the journey back from heartbreak.
From the premise alone you can probably guess how the movie flows (initial “puppy-love,” the first signs of tension or doubt, the hard realities of commitment, etc…) and most of the deeper themes of the story are not exactly woven in with subtlety. From the first encounter between Theo and Sam there is a very clear target Jonze is aiming for, and he locks sight on that target and shoots directly for it, relying on the experience of the journey and the fresh opportunities provided by the futuristic setting to be more engaging than the somewhat cliched destination. Still, by the end, there is uplifting sentiment to be found, even if the character arc is wrapped much more neatly than some of the other interesting narrative threads – and even if the final send-off is an echo of something we’ve seen so many times before.
Joaquin Phoenix is tasked with holding the screen (often alone) for the majority of the film’s scenes, and he once again proves to be a great actor of his generation, with a very nuanced and sensitive portrayal of a man searching for the next phase of his life. He’s never over-the-top or melodramatic, and his interactions with an off-screen character feel as genuine and emotive (if not more so) as a scene with an actual actress. It might be too subtle of a performance to really net the actor an award (as opposed to just nominations), but is a great one, nonetheless.
The biggest surprise in the film, however, is the effectiveness of Scarlett Johansson as Samantha. When appearing onscreen in person, Johansson tends to be the object of heavy scrutiny and quick ridicule; but in providing her vocals for this role, she quickly and thoroughly charms the ear through her interactions with Phoenix, while also maintaining subtle inflections that reflect the reality that while personable, she is still playing a machine (ex: switching from natural conversation tone to more mechanized functional tones). There are portions of the film where the actress’s voice performance borders dangerously close to melodrama and/or camp – but some of that blame can be attributed to the demands of the story and the written dialogue, while other times it is indeed the delivery at fault. All in all though, Samantha is a great character and Johansson is truly the engine that powers her.
Curiously enough, Her has a supporting cast of consisting of hot-item actors playing very small roles in what is essentially a two-person show between Phoenix and Johansson. You have a mousy-looking Amy Adams playing Theodore’s longtime friend, neighbor and fellow geek; Chris Pratt shows up in several scenes as Theodore’s supportive and admiring co-worker; while Olivia Wilde and Rooney Mara carry some of the most awkward and uncomfortable scenes in the film, playing Theo’s blind date and estranged wife, respectively. It’s definitely more star power than was needed, but it is no less appreciated since the actors are all solid performers.
In the end, Her is further proof that the outlandish imagination of Spike Jonze may be one of the most accurate and insightful lenses for observing the great human saga. While the premise of Her may seem silly or unappealing initially, Jonze and his performers certainly sell it well and ground it in a way that anyone who has ever struggled with the mysteries of love and self-identity (meaning, everyone) will find at least one familiar chord to serve as a port for them to plug into the tale.
And if in ten years we see people seeking the solace of love from digital companions, we’ll have only to say that Spike Jonze showed us the way…
Her is now expanding to wider release. It is 126 minutes long, and is Rated R for language, sexual content and brief graphic nudity.
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