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'Her' review: Spike Jonze's techie romance feels a little too automated

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Remember when a computer used to display a blue screen of death(BSOD) when a peripheral it didn’t like was plugged in, or for any particular reason? Well, have no fear: in the future, there is no such thing. Gone are the days of the temperamental Windows operating system. Instead, it is replaced by the sultry voice of Scarlett Johansson, who sounds like she just hastily smoked a pack of Newport’s. She’ll play your music and send your email(because in the future, apparently, that’s all anyone needs an operating system to do), and she’ll even engage in cybersex(or would it be phone sex?). In that case, she’s not that far off from a real human being when she simulates her orgasm.

Theodore Twombly(Joaquin Phoenix) gets his hands on this revolutionary operating system, and this is the setup for “Her”, a story about a man falling in love with a piece of technology. Like writer/director Spike Jonze’s previous films “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation”, the characters in “Her” have quirks, but they aren’t exactly the appealing quirks that made his first two films so accessible. In the process of finalizing his divorce, Theodore has become somewhat of a recluse. Ironically, he spends his days speaking to his computer at work, writing ‘handwritten’ letters to customers’ loved ones. The cursive scrawl is generated on the computer screen, and printed out on colorful paper, so the notes actually look like they were handwritten.

A dot com that writes people’s feelings for them and simulates authenticity through the use of technology would have been a wonderful backdrop for some social commentary, but it’s really only an additional piece of validation for Theodore’s soon-to-be-budding relationship.

The fact that Theodore wears sweatpants that look like they are trying to moonlight as dress khakis makes one wonder how he ever managed to land a wife in the first place. He wears them pulled up above his belly button, and somehow they seem to fit the dress code at the office, because nobody complains. With his style of dress and (should it be said?) his mustache, Theodore comes off as kind of a creeper. This makes one scene nearly impossible to believe. Theodore goes on a blind date with an attractive woman who seems hell-bent on sleeping with him. Olivia Wilde plays this woman, and when he won’t sleep with her, she calls him a freak. What drew her to him? The bizarre pants, or the fact that he has a darn safety pin attached to his shirt pocket 24/7 so his phone(or whatever the device is) can stick out the top?

The real meat of the story is Theodore’s relationship with Samantha, and sadly, it’s just as cliched as a regular relationship between two human beings. Samantha gets jealous, and then she starts to nag him. One would think that an advanced, artificially intelligent operating system would pick up on the fact that humans usually try and get their sleep in the nighttime, but there are several scenes with Samantha ‘calling’ Theodore in the middle of the night(quick sidebar: it’s hard to tell what the device is that Theodore talks to Samantha on. It doesn’t appear to be a phone, and late in the film he refers to it as a ‘book’ of some kind.). And these conversations are as depth as ‘I just wanted to hear your voice’ or ‘what’s wrong?’

Such blasé dialogue would be passable if “Her” had a greater message than just Theodore’s relationship with Samantha, but it doesn’t. It embraces it wholeheartedly and without prejudice. That is a respectable decision, but then it doesn’t excuse the fact that the thing that ends up bringing their relationship to a head feels like flat-out lazy screenwriting. Having Brian Cox’s instantly recognizable voice pop up for a scene doesn’t sooth the fact that the forced resolution seems tacked on.

“Being John Malkovich” wasn’t a film that could easily be embraced upon its first viewing either, so perhaps “Her” would require more than one serving to stretch the moviegoing palate. “Her” has an interesting premise; one that should make for an interesting story. The fact that Theodore’s relationship with his operating system quickly deviates into a very boring, human-esque one makes it seem like Jonze had a great idea, but didn’t know quite where to take it. So he settled. Just like the humor. The obvious meant-to-be-funny moments are all driven by profanity, as Theodore meets a foul-mouthed little creature while he plays a virtual-reality video game at his home. At the end of the day, feeling emotional about “Her” feels sort of passé, which isn’t how it should be. Or, according to the film’s setting, maybe it is….


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