The fascinating aspect about Spike Jonze’s romantic comedy ‘Her’ is his audacity to take on such a provocative storyline. It’s about a lonely guy in the not-too-distant future that falls in love with a computer operating system. Sounds gimmicky, right? Before the smartphone revolution occurred around 2005ish, most people would treat the film’s subject matter as downright creepy. That’s the assumption but we’re talking about one of the most gifted filmmakers working in cinema today. Jonze is best known for his collaborations with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman including ‘Being John Malkovich’ and ‘Adaptation.’ With his latest venture, ‘Her’ (his screenwriting debut), he brilliantly evokes a thoughtful meditation on human relationships.
Calling it a science fiction movie is not doing it justice. Quite simply, it is a love story. Meet Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely hipster who works at a dot com company called beautifulandwrittenletters.com. He works at his cubicle, verbally dictating and fine-tuning his prose, based on a form submitted by his clients. He is good at what he does and it is an ironic way to show us that Theodore is quite capable of expressing emotions (albeit in the form of virtual Hallmark cards). As he commutes home on a subway, he is plugged into his smartphone, checking messages like we all do. “Play a melancholy song,” Theodore tells his cigarette case-looking device. After a few bars, he commands, “Play a different melancholy song.” It cleverly shows the supposed ease of instant gratification.
We soon learn that everything that happens in Theodore’s life is through technology. And he isn’t the only one. The futuristic city of Los Angeles is full of citizens that are also talking to their handheld devices and walking in their own social bubbles. Theodore lives in a modern high-rise apartment complex with breathtaking views of other downtown high-rise buildings illuminated with colorful lights. The cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema (The Fighter, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) is luscious and vibrant. Interestingly, many of the cityscapes were filmed in Shanghai, China. It gives the story an eerie, foreboding tone. As Theodore relaxes at home, instead of turning on the television, he plays a 3D video game. It’s not a nightmarish dystopian world seen in many films set in the future. On the surface, it seems grand. There is no homelessness, minimal traffic, high-speed trains, men wear retro fashion (funny high-wasted pants) and people still visit the beach on weekends. Jonze explains in a recent interview, “Everything is nice and comfortable and yet he’s still lonely and longing for connection,” he goes on, “It seemed like it would hurt more, in this beautiful pop world, to have that deep melancholy.”
One day, Theodore sees an ad for a new operating system called OS1. Intrigued, he purchases it and we see him installing the software on his home computer. The voice introduces herself as Samantha (magnificently performed by Scarlett Johansson). This is no ordinary operating system. She actually has artificial intelligence and a conscious. At first, she functions more like a virtual assistant. She organizes his computer files, contacts, appointments and even recommends deleting out-of-date emails. But soon, things evolve just like Samantha’s personality does over time and that is what makes this relationship so heartfelt. After a while, you’ll see how similar Theodore and Samantha’s relationship is to a real one. They enjoy each other’s company and laugh together. He takes her on trips to a carnival and another to the beach. They even share intimate moments that Jonze wisely fades to black. If it makes you feel a little uncomfortable, that’s the director’s intention.
Masterfully woven into the story are real women in Theodore’s life. We get to know more about his backstory through flashbacks of his ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) and an old college friend Amy (Amy Adams) who happens to be his next-door neighbor. Amy even has one of the best lines in the movie. She declares, “Falling in love is a crazy thing to do. It’s like a socially acceptable form of insanity.” Both actresses are wonderful and add texture to Theodore’s journey. You’ll do a double-take when you see Adams without make-up and her sexy outfits from ‘American Hustle.’ It perfectly shows off this gifted actress’s range. Phoenix is amazing in the lead role. It’s a moving performance and one of his most vulnerable to date. That is the sign of a true thespian that generously wears his heart on his sleeve. Johansson is terrific as his virtual girlfriend and the Academy is seriously considering her for a nomination.
‘Her’ is the best film of the year, thanks to the genius of Spike Jonze. It is an insightful and provocative look at technology and our need for human connection. Jonze is not knocking the technology. He simply shows us where we are and where we might be headed with it. ‘Her’ is now playing at the Flicks, downtown Boise and a theater near you. Check out the official trailer http://youtu.be/WzV6mXIOVl4.