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HER (2013) review

January 3, 2014

herposter

 

written by: Spike Jonze

produced by: Megan Ellison, Spike Jonze and Vincent Landay

directed by: Spike Jonze

rating: R (for language, sexual content and brief graphic nudity) 

runtime: 126 min.

U.S. release date: December 18, 2013 (limited) and January 10, 2013 (wide) 

 

I’m still getting used to people talking to themselves on the train or as they walk down the street. Of course, that’s not what’s really happening. Those people are usually talking to someone on their cell phone, using an earpiece or some form of wireless device. They’re hands are free for them to hold grocery bags or drive a car. It’s still strange to me, but I guess I should get used to it. Because according to writer/director Spike Jonze (“Where the Wild Things Are”, “Adaptation” and “Being John Malkovich”) in the near future we’ll be doing the same thing when our very own computer – or operating system – becomes our best friend. We’ll be able to talk to, travel with and possibly even fall in love with him, or, in this case “Her”.

Theodore Twumbly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a lonely writer, who creates thoughtful and poetic letters for “beautifullyhandcraftedletters.com” to and from other people, a company that serves to offer a human connection. That’s what Theodore is lacking at this point in his life. Having separated from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara) within the past year, Theodore has found himself in a depressive trance. Outside of his job, he spends his time playing video games at home or hanging out with his friend, Amy (Amy Adams) and her husband, Charles (Matt Letscher). Everything changes when Theodore meets Samantha.

She’s doesn’t have a body and soul, but she’s designed to meet his every need. She happens to be a new operating system Theodore recently purchased called “OS 1” that has an artificial intelligence that is personally coded for its owner. Theodore can clip a camera to the breast pocket of his shirt or jacket so she can see what he sees and wear a bluetooth-type earpiece in order for him to speak with her.  At first, Theodore doesn’t know what to make of Samantha (Scarlet Johansson), as she proves herself a helpful asset by organizing his schedules, files and photos, deleting junk where needed, but something more personal between them starts to take place.

 

hertheodore

 

Samantha shows an interest in who Theodore is, his likes and dislikes as well as his dreams and desires. She asks questions about what it’s like to have a body – to run, to get tired and to kiss. These interactions with Samantha awaken something in Theodore. He smiles and laughs with her and the two exchange intimacies. Soon, Theodore begins telling others that he’s in a relationship with someone, feeling confidant enough to divulge that someone is his OS.

What unfolds for Theodore and Samantha is something unexplainable for both of them – something that feels right and true; yet also quite limiting and, eventually, a challenging and troubling experience. The further Theodore gets into his relationship with Samantha, the more he finds that it’s one that is includes  similar complications with a corporeal being. When Theodore learns of certain revelations, he experiences another reawakening and must come to terms with who he is and how he feels to the real world and begin to find value for the flesh and blood people around him.

As much as “Her” is set in the not-so-different future, it’s easy to draw comparisons to our present-day world. There’s really no way one cannot think of how we do or do not utilize technology and whether or not we open ourselves up to the vulnerabilities, joys and problems of a human connection in real life, while watching this movie. Thankfully, it’s not a parallel comparison that hits us over the head, because Jonze invites us into this world by slowly revealing how different everything is. As his world-building unfolds here, we are also gradually introduced who Theodore is and what composes his surroundings.

The world we see in “Her” feels normal – in a logical next-step kind of way, that is. The video game Theodore plays are uniquely interactive (and also quite hilarious, what with the way the Alien Child he controls, voiced by Jonze, stops during gameplay to complain to or berate Theodore) in such a way that actually seems like something we would see roll out in the near-future. When we begin to see others walking around outside, sitting on park benches or at restaurants, interacting with the same new OS Theodore purchased, that’s when the familiarity of today’s prevalent smart phone or tablet use is noticeable. As much as this behavior seems odd when it’s acted out on-screen, there’s no getting around what a humorous and convicting statement it is. There’s a certain plausibility to Theodore’s occupation, there’s also an irony as well. He works with a few cheery people, like Paul (Chris Pratt), which you’d imagine would be a prerequisite disposition for composing “Get Well Soon” or “Happy Anniversary” cards, but then there’s quiet and introverted Theodore, who doesn’t seem to happy at all until Samantha enters his life.

 

heros

 

The thing about Theodore’s relationship with Samantha is that it makes sense. Oh sure, it’s a bizarre thing to explain to others – just as verbally explaining people what this film is about elicits quite a response from the listener. There’s really no way to truly describe to someone the intricacies of the human condition that Jonze explores here. They’re better off finding out for themselves how Jonze’s intuitive screenplay delves into subjects such as loneliness (of single or married folk), the idea of true love and the obsessiveness of having the next best thing. Again, Jonze touches on these subjects in a fluid manner that doesn’t at all feel forced or repetitive. Mostly, it just feels so raw and honest.

Take the concept of falling in love with your own personal operating system. Here is something you buy that becomes someone who knows everything about you. Obviously, it depends on how you use this OS, but to use it in the way it was intended is to disclose everything to it. For someone like Theodore, who still mourns the human connection he had with his wife, you can see how susceptible he would be to this. He’s at a time in his life where he’s emotionally stuck in life. We see how sadly unsuccessful things go for him on a blind date (Olivia Wilde), which make it easier to accept how he could be drawn to the safety of his OS. It’s also easy to see how slowly working his way into a relationship with Samantha, or “Sam” as he calls her, is appealing. It would seem that the whole experience would be drama-free since you don’t have to physically see this person or deal with their friends or family. In fact, falling in love with an OS feels like an easy fix – until it isn’t.

Jonze taps into real honesty when Theodore experiences with Sam the same frustration, heartbreak and confusion that he’s experienced in a flesh and blood relationship. Jonze’s witty and attentive dialogue is superb throughout, but during the  final third act of the film I actually found myself getting worked up and anxious along with Theodore as the state of his relationship takes a sobering albeit inevitable turn. By the end of the film, I couldn’t help but reflect on how engaging Jonze’s writing is here.

“Her” marks the first time Jonze is directing his own original script, having worked off Charlie Kaufman for “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation” and Maurice Sendak for “Where the Wild Things Are” and it’s combination of drama, comedy and romance are excellently balanced. Not only is it easily one of the most original screenplays of the year, “Her” also has a very well-paced storyline that allows for strong characterization as well.

 

heradams

 

The art direction by Austin Gorg (“Gangster Squad” and “The Hangover Part III”) and cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema (“Let the Right One In” and “The Fighter”), make the film a visually rewarding experience. The film’s eclectic soundtrack, provided by Arcade Fire and Owen Pallett with additional help from Karen O (reuniting with Jonze  after “Where the Wild Things Are”), is emotive and addictive and definitely one of the most memorable of the year.

What I appreciated most about the script (and, in turn, the directing) was how Jonze executed the film’s conceit – boy falls in love with his operating system. But, we couldn’t have been sold on it if we weren’t able to hear the voice of Samantha. When you think about it, we really not supposed to hear her, since she is someone who only Theodore communicates with. But, to have the audience become absorbed by the film and it’s conceit, we have to hear Scarlet Johansson’s voice. In order for us to believe these two characters are growing close together, we need to see/hear them both. It’s a necessary and creative decision to make on Jonze part and also gives viewers a chance to see a different kind of chemistry between two leads.

Phoenix, in his glasses, mustache and high wool pants, is perfectly cast as Theodore. He conveys loneliness as a kind of subconscious second-nature, as if he’s miserable yet at peace with where’s he’s at. Until he meets Samantha, who stirs him out of this state and has him looking at life in a different way. Phoenix is charming yet not in romcom leading man material and is relatable because he feels like either someone we know or like ourselves. And then there’s Johansonn’s Samantha. Her voice work is uncanny, alluring and fascinating. It’s just as refreshing to hear her lose herself in such a role, as it is watching Phoenix act beside someone he (and we) are not seeing. The other two supporting actresses that standout are Adams and Mara, who play integral roles in fleshing out who Theodore is. Adams offers light comic relief as well as needed emotional support for Theodore and she does so in a relaxed and natural manner. Mara on the other hand, is first seen in flashbacks as Theodore thinks back to the ups and downs of his failed marriage with her. Then we see her as she is now, when she meets up with Theodore for lunch. She’s great here, appropriately portraying the awkwardness and distance of separation and her reaction to Theodore’s revelation of his dating Samantha is very convincing. Overall, “Her” boasts an impressive cast with some fantastic roles for women especially.

“Her” is one of the best films of the year. It’s beautifully told story connects viewers on an emotional level and will have them discussing long after viewing. Some may even consider the film odd or weird. So be it. While it defies genres and has a certain creepiness about it amid all the fine acting and great writing, I found that a rare and rewarding treat. People complain that there’s nothing playing movie theaters that’s different or new – well, here she is.

 

herocean

 

RATING: ****

 

 

herposter2

 

 

 

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