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Josh Reviews Her

There’s no doubt in my mind that Spike Jonze is one of the very finest filmmakers working today.  Like most of the rest of the world, I was quite taken by his loopy first film, 1999’s Being John Malkovich (I can’t believe it came out so long ago — I need to find the time to see that great film again some-time soon!), and I loved Adaptation even more (click here for my review).  But it was his 2009 adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are that shot my appreciation of Mr. Jonze’s skills into the stratosphere.  I absolutely adored that film (click here for my review), and I named it as my very favorite film of the year.  I was so taken by Mr. Jonze’s singular vision in adapting that story.  I can’t imagine any other director creating such a remarkably tender, poignant piece of work.

So I’ve obviously been looking forward to Mr. Jonze’s next film for some time.  And while Her might not have been, for me, at the level of Where the Wild Things Are, I still found it to be a riveting piece of work, and another gorgeous, emotional film from this talented director.  (And writer.  Mr. Jonze also wrote the film, his first time as a solo-screenwriter.)

Set in the not-too-distant-future, Joaquin Phoenix stars as Theodore.  Theodore seems a nice young man, and he is a talented writer who does well at his small-time job.  But he is lonely.  Taken by an advertisement he sees for a new operating system with an artificial intelligence, Theodore purchases the system and finds that his life quickly begins to be changed by the vivacious new personality in his life (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), who names herself Samantha.  Theodore and Samantha’s bond gradually becomes more intimate, and the film charts the course of the relationship between the two.

I was quite struck by the gentle love story Mr. Jonze has created with this film.  There’s a sci-fi hook (“Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his cell phone!”) and there is certainly some commentary in the film about the direction of our electronics-obsessed culture.  Will our technology help connect us to one another, or make us more distant from each other?  This is not a “message” film, but Theodore’s job (writing intimate letters to loved ones from people who can’t or won’t write them themselves) is a powerful statement as to where Mr. Jonze might stand on that particular debate.  Even more striking than that are several memorable long-shots, scattered throughout the film, in which we see crowds of people moving (down streets, through halls), with everyone’s eyes glued to their phone/mobile device.  Those wordless moments draw a profound picture of a society that is only a teensy step beyond our world right now.

But the focus of Her is not on any social commentary or sci-fi explorations.  This is a love-story, albeit one told through the lens of this slightly tweaked version of our own world.  And like most of Spike Jonze’s films, I found Her to be a sweet, tender, touching story.  While also being just a little bit weird!

The film rests one hundred percent on the performances of Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson, and the connection between the two of them.  Both actors are phenomenal, and the film’s working is a testament to their skills, and those of Mr. Jonze’s.  Mr. Phoenix pulls his performance way, way in, stripping away any of the manic energy that sometimes characterizes his work (such as his terrific performance in The Master).  He gives a very soulful, quiet performance, allowing us to see inside the heart of this shy everyman.  Mr. Phoenix gives Theodore enough quirks of personality to make him a unique character and not just a bland character-type, but while Theodore is more introverted than the average fellow, Mr. Phoenix keeps him relatable and understandable.  He’s balanced by Ms. Johansson, who gives a knockout of a voice-over performance.  As Samantha grows and learns, Ms. Johansson guides the audience through her journey every step of the way, taking us with her on the character’s journey towards self-discovery and possibly sentience.  She expresses so much personality and character through just her voice.  Ms. Johansson is marvelous, allowing the audience to fall in love with Samantha just as Theodore does.

As I watched the story of Her unfold, I found my heart rushing back and forth between what I thought of Theodore and Samantha’s romance, and how I wanted the film to end.  As we watch the connection grow between Theodore and Samantha, we also get to know Theodore’s friend Amy (Amy Adams), a sweet artist who is getting divorced from her husband.  Theodore and Amy have a close friendship and a deep understanding of one another, albeit no romantic connection.  On the one hand, as I watched the story play out, I viewed Theodore’s growing attachment to Samantha (and hers to him) as unnatural and unhealthy.  Theodore was clearly an introvert who had trouble connecting with others.  Was his relationship with Samantha a deepening of that, a way of his avoiding a connection with another real live human being?  Part of me was rooting for Theodore to forget Samantha and to realize what an amazing potential life partner he had right in front of him, in the form of his friend Amy.

On the other hand, I wondered, why shouldn’t I be rooting for Theodore’s relationship with Samantha?  If, in fact, she was not a machine but actually a thinking, feeling individual — albeit one created of technology and not flesh-and-blood — then wasn’t her relationship with Theodore an amazing transcendence of the physical?  Their love for one another wasn’t based on any sort of physical attraction, but on a connection of their personalities, of their minds.  Isn’t that the highest ideal of a relationship?  Shouldn’t we all believe that the value of a human being isn’t in their physical attributes (beauty or lack thereof) but in their hearts, their minds, their souls?  In this respect, Theodore and Samantha’s relationship was remarkably noble and beautiful.

I suppose the issue comes down to the question of Samantha’s sentience, and while the film certainly gives us plenty of evidence that this operating system does develop into a true, free-thinking individual, I could see someone watching the film and feeling the other way.  I love the gentle ambiguity of the film’s story, and I love how different people could watch this story and come down on very different sides of the tale.  It’s a film I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about and considering, trying to sort out my feelings about the way the film played out in the end.  (Which I obviously won’t spoil here!)

All of this works so powerfully because, while Her gave me a lot to think about, I do not believe that making people THINK was Spike Jonze’s primary goal.  I think his goal was to make people FEEL, to affect them with the unfolding tale of this unusual love story.  For me, at least, he succeeded admirably.  Had I been able to see this film before the end of 2013 (it didn’t get a wide release until early 2014) it certainly would have made my Best Movies of 2013 list.  (And who knows, maybe I’ll include it on my Best Movies of 2014 list!)

A few other notes:

Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlet Johansson are the two leads, of course, but Amy Adams’ work as Amy is magnificent.  Frankly, I thought this was a much deeper, much more affecting performance than her far-more-lauded work in American Hustle (click here for my review).  Ms. Adams (looking bravely un-glam in this film, so much so that at first I didn’t recognize her) is phenomenal, creating a touching portrait of a woman with a broken heart.

Chris Platt, Olivia Wilde, and Rooney Mara each do tremendous work in small-but-critical supporting roles.  I also adored the brief voice-over appearance of Brian Cox, perfectly cast.

I love the design of this film, from the sleek look of the technology (computer screens, mobile devices, projected video games and advertisements), to the sets and the costumes (with those wonderfully idiosyncratic high-rise pants!).  This is great, subtle work at creating a world that is a futuristic one, but not a Star Trek/Star Wars type of future.  This is our world, just a few steps removed.  It’s critical for the audience to buy into that, to believe in this world, for the story to work.

Once again, Spike Jonze has crafted a beautiful, unique film.  I’m delighted to have seen it, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

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