HerReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 12/27/13 12:50:23
Walking into the screening of Spike Jonze's "Her" and knowing its basic premise, I must admit that I had some doubts as to whether it could possibly succeed. This was somewhat odd considering the fact that I have adored Jonze's previous films--"Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation" and "Where the Wild Things Are"--and admired his ability to take the strangest and most seemingly unfilmable material and transform it into works that somehow managed to dazzle the eye, tickle the funny bone, bend the mind and touch the heart in the most unexpected of ways. However, the concept of "Her" seemed so defiantly strange--the kind of conceit where even one false move could send the whole house of cards tumbling down--that I wasn't sure that even someone as gifted as him could pull it off.As it turns out, my worries were for nothing because the film is an absolute knockout that take an audacious idea and handles it without making a single misstep. The end result is a romantic comedy-drama unlike any other and the most genuinely touching and affecting example of the genre that I have seen since maybe "Lost in Translation." As this is one of those films that is probably best appreciated by knowing as little about its particulars as possible before going in, I would gently suggest that anyone who does not yet already know the premise should probably skip out now and simply take my word for it that this is one of the very best films of 2013.
Set in the not-too-distant future--for once pictured as a relatively clean and cheery place instead of as one of the grim dystopias that have been all the rage since the release of "Blade Runner"--the film stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly, a pleasantly bland dweeb who is still reeling from the recent breakup of his marriage and who works at a company that writes up heartfelt letters and notes to people on behalf of those who are unable to muster up the requisite emotions on their own. Theodore is amazingly good at his job but seems incapable of bringing his work home with him, so to speak, and with the exception of platonic pal Amy (Amy Adams), an earnest documentarian whose latest work is about people sleeping, he seems to be at a loss as to how to actually connect with anyone else.
Things take an unexpected turn when Theo installs OS1, a new operating system that claims to be the first to feature genuine artificial intelligence, onto his computer and upgrade from the generic factory settings to a more personalized version that goes by the name of Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Samantha quickly begins to put Theo's life into order in all the usual ways--deleting unnecessary files, copyediting his work and even helping him to negotiate an exceptionally tricky video game (a scene that leads to some of the film's biggest laughs)--but before long, she wants to learn more about the world that Theo inhabits in order to satisfy her ever-expanding curiosity. Theo obliges and as he shows her his world, he finds himself looking at it in a new way as well thanks to her cheerful warmth and intelligence. He finds himself slowly coming out of his shell and after a while, it becomes apparent that Theo and Samantha are. . .well, there is no other way to really say it. . .in love.
At this point, the more literal-minded of you out there have no doubt thrown up your hands in incredulous frustration accompanied by some form of "Oh, come on!" while those with longer memories may be asking why anyone would want to see what sounds like a remake/ripoff of the largely forgotten "Electric Dreams." Where the genius of "Her" comes from the myriad ways that Jonze takes his seemingly jokey and futuristic premise and uses it to thoughtfully explore a number of concepts that any viewer will be able to relate to, ranging from mankind's increasingly co-dependent attitude towards advances in technology to the ways in which personal interactions have grown increasingly impersonal thanks to those developments to the struggles in every relationship between two people trying to get to get a handle on who they are as they get to know each other. More significantly, Jonze's screenplay also manages to brilliantly and effortlessly convey, in ways that are best left for you to discover, the nuts and bolts of what occurs when two people come together from the giddy beginnings filled with infinite possibilities to the darker moments when one can do nothing but sit there dumfounded and wonder how something that once felt so good and right could now inspire such emotional agony.
The scenes that follow Theo and Samantha as their relationship blossoms from the expected forms of interfacing into something more are little miracles in that they take a notion that sounds absurd enough for a "SNL" sketch and bring a real sense of warmth and humanity to them. There is even a sex scene of sorts and while there is absolutely no way that should work under any possible circumstance, the end result is easily the most convincing and effective such sequence in any film this year not named "Blue is the Warmest Color." At the same time, Jonze is careful to keep things grounded so that the story does not simply fly off into the world of idealized fantasy.
There is one scene in which Theo goes out on a blind date with a seemingly ideal woman (Olivia Wilde) but what starts out perfectly fine quickly goes horribly wrong in large part because of his inability to connect with a real person. Later on, there is an absolutely brilliant moment in which he agrees to meet with his ex (Rooney Mara) to finally sign the divorce papers and move on with his life--all goes well until he lets on about who he is seeing now and she lets him have it with both barrels in a scene that is alternately heartbreaking and hilarious. And once the initial giddy bloom of the romance between Theo and Samantha is gone and things become troubled, it becomes obvious that it is due in no small part to the fact that the more human she becomes, the more he begins to fall into the same old patterns that he has with his more conventional relationships.
The way that Jonze handles the material both as writer and director is fairly amazing--this is arguably the best thing that he has done to date and that is saying something considering the rest of his filmography--but what really holds "Her" together are the astonishing and enormously risky work done by Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson. For Phoenix, he has to deliver a performance that not only requires him to bare both heart and but to do it convincingly even though he is oftentimes acting opposite someone who isn't actually there. As for Johansson, not only does she have to do the same, she has to do it using nothing more than her voice. These are hurdles that would have stymied most actors but the two overcome them and deliver not only two of the very best performances of the year but one of the most emotionally resonant and believable relationships to be seen in an American film in a while. (This is even more impressive in Johansson's case because as it turns out, she actually recorded her part during post-production when Jonze determined that the performance recorded by his original choice, Samantha Morton, did not fit in with the rest of the film.)To pull off a truly touching and believable big-screen romance is an incredibly difficult thing to do these days because of all the things that need to work for it to succeed--a relationship that develops plausibly and without contrivance, characters who are interesting and likable both together and individually and actors with the kind of on-screen chemistry that makes viewers want to follow them on the adventures of the heart. In most cases--take the increasingly ludicrous screen adaptations of the scribblings of Nicolas Sparks--the filmmakers fail to make any of those elements work and the results tend to veer between the excruciatingly tedious and the inadvertently hilarious. "Her," on the other hand, never makes a single false step and the end result is a gentle, touching and funny film that is just about perfect.
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