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Movie review: 'Her' is an astoundingly imaginative romance for the gadget age

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Her

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HER-- 5 STARS

In this young second decade of the 21st century, we, as a society, have continued to evolve and move forward in an ever-increasing world of virtual connectivity. We have reached unparalleled heights of communication than what was possible a century or even fifty years ago. The website Digital Trends predicts that the number of cell phones on Earth will exceed the total human population in 2014. A billion of those will be smartphones. That's astounding to fathom considering that, within many of our lifetimes, cell phones and smartphones didn't exist. Parallel to this growth, there is also a negative dichotomy of disconnect to match the means and capability of connection and relationship.

In this great era of growth, we've become very device-dependent and device-centered, especially today's youth. I frequently look at my first child, a ten-month-old daughter, and how, someday, she will be like this popular YouTube video from almost three years ago entitled "A Magazine is an iPad That Doesn't Work." Like the video comments, a screen and a device is now that kid's "programming." That's the progression we're witnessing right before our eyes. That's the world she'll grow up in whether I like it or not. We humorously see lists of now-defunct technology that we all grew up with that the next generation will have no idea about, but those jokes are true. Take this list from Business Insider written nearly five years ago and look how many have prophetically come true. Some of that is advancement while others lead to that dichotomy of disconnect in a world of increased connectivity.

Look even closer. How often now do gatherings of friends and family look like a bunch of people looking down at their devices instead of really talking and interacting? When was the last time someone wrote a handwritten letter instead of a TTYL-abbreviated text or e-mail of Twitter-verse shorthand? In a world filled with new means and shortcuts to communicate more personally than ever before, we've also lost some of the ability to truly connect on a personal level. Technology has become our proxy and voice to substitute for experience. The scariest thought is how this trend will continue to evolve going forward. Where will that YouTube baby end up in twenty years as an adult? What will her world look like and act like?

There's a film out now examining much of that very concept. Her, the new film from Being John Malkovich and Where the Wild Things Are director Spike Jonze, takes a look at that level of dichotomy and extends it into the not-too-distant future in a very different kind of science fiction setting. It poses one question, among many others, of what if artificial connection exceeded personal connection on a romantic level. Could that even be possible? The weird-yet-heartfelt vibe of the teaser and the trailer has raised eyebrows and intrigued audiences for months. In early glowing reviews, Her has been called the best and most unlikely romance of the year. It has won Best Picture honors from the National Board of Review and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.

I'm here to tell you that Her answers and warrants every word, Facebook post, text, ounce, Twitter character, and data megabyte of its hype and promise, spoken and written, about both the film's weirdness and romantic quality. It is profoundly unique and endlessly thought-provoking to say the least. I don't think I've ever seen a film take such a strange initial vibe and turn it into something completely approachable, relateable, and significant. Her has to be seen to be believed.

I won't spoil much more than what the previews have already shown. The Master Academy Award nominee Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a sullen and lonely guy going through a separation and a divorce from Catherine (Oscar nominee Rooney Mara of Side Effects and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), a childhood friend he's known all his life. Our story is set in the near future of Los Angeles where it appears 1990's band collars and 1940's high waistline pants are back in style together. He passes his wallowing time surfing for porn chat rooms (a fun Kristen Wiig vocal cameo) and playing an open world virtual reality video game. His closest remaining friends are his college friend Amy (four-time Oscar nominee Amy Adams), who is also experiencing a rough marriage, and his overly chipper boss Paul (Parks and Recreation star Chris Pratt).

The go-to device everyone seems to have in this future is a smartphone of sorts that communicates e-mail, music, phone calls, video, calendar appointments, and more through a Siri-like operating system paired with a wireless earbud. Ironically, Theodore works for an online website, BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, that specializes in old-fashioned communication. Theodore is one of the most gifted writers on their team, beautifully composing, via voice recognition word processing software, stirring poems, love letters, thank you cards, and more.

He's a man who can put the love of others into immediate and perfect words but can't figure out the failed and desired love he's missing in his own life. That void begins to fill with the arrival of an intuitive new operating system on his device that advertises the ability to adapt and evolve with artificial intelligence. Renamed "Samantha" and voiced by Scarlett Johansson (who, fun fact, replaced Samantha Morton's completed work late in editing), Theodore dives in and opens up his life to this curious computer voice. She becomes fascinated to learn and the two bond very quickly, improving Theodore's attitude and work immensely. Theodore soon realizes that he's in love with Samantha and things turn to very emotional at the implications and reality this "relationship" entails.

The first question that is likely going to come to mind of every potential Her viewer is the same as Amy's in the film: "What is that like?" Imagine a man getting to spill his internal monologue to a benevolent and thoughtful voice that talks and reacts back with little judgment and pushback. Imagine a man pouring out what he feels he can't tell or say to anyone else properly and being completely revitalized and at ease with being able to let all of that go to a personality in tune with his own that he can trust and relate with. If you were to close your eyes and listen to Her rather than watch it, this would come across as one of the most honest, open, and perfectly fulfilling relationships you've probably ever witnessed. It's only weird when you open your eyes and realize the voice is a computer and not a woman that looks like Scarlett Johansson in the room with Theodore.

That's what it feels like to watch Her and the heartbreaking performance from Joaquin Phoenix. Scarlett may have the tantalizing voice, but he's the man you root for to find himself. Phoenix showed us an intense and hateful side to his talent last year in the unnerving Paul Thomas Anderson opus The Master, in an unsettling role that has scared a lot of people away from this film. His weird off-screen personality hasn't helped sell tickets either. Know now that Her is as polar opposite to The Master as you can get. This is a delicate man lost and looking for love and a man that's not afraid to show his fractured flaws. Often, he is alone in scenes reacting to spoken words off-screen requiring emotional reactions of his own creation. It's a captivating performance. I think Joaquin Phoenix is better in Her than he was last year when he was nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards. Oscar deserves to call his name again.

In director Spike Jonze's debut as a screenwriter, Her takes an entirely daring premise and runs with the possibilities. Familiar romantic scenarios like first meetings, ensuing conversations, dating, arguments, sexual desires, break-ups, and divorce are examined and played out in familiar, yet unique new ways. There will undoubtedly be a entire section of pragmatic Her viewers that will not take this leap of faith and constantly tell themselves to scream "It's a computer, bro" at Theodore for two hours. Those that are open to allow this premise to play out will be immensely rewarded.

The so-called weirdness of Her becomes engrossing and interesting thanks to the domestic ethereal elements that make up the world these characters move within. I don't think I have ever seen a film take so much "weird," per se, and give it heart, relation, and engagement where it ceases being strange. Production designer K.K. Barrett and costume designer Casey Storm, both frequent Jonze collaborators, create a bright, vibrant, gorgeous, and hopeful future L.A. landscape of a modern, organic, and relaxed style inside and out. Indie rock darlings Arcade Fire and Canadian composer Owen Pallett fill the ambiance with a keen and underlying musical score that hits the right notes between melancholy and joy as perfectly as possible. Karen O of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs accompanies that score with a dynamite end credits song (heard in the trailers) that hauntingly recalls a poignant earlier scene. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (The Fighter and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) ties it all together with camerawork that spans from voyeurism to omnipotent guide in taking all of the film in. Every element plays into taking this film's weirdness away.

The full and complete experience of Her is almost something that can't be explained. It is easily one of the most creative movies in years and one of the most superior films of 2013. This is nothing short of a masterpiece from Spike Jonze, who has always let screenwriters overshadow his creativity and potential. The weirdness and originality of Her is ever-present, but the aforementioned elements of beauty and the incredibly honest performances from the actors and actresses give the film an intoxicating charm that few movies this year have manifested. Her is smart, funny, touching, compelling, and utterly interesting every single moment it is playing.

Her opened Christmas Day at four exclusive Chicago theater locations including the AMC River East 21 downtown. It will expand nationally on January 10th.

LESSON #1: CONNECTION THROUGH DISCONNECTION-- The unique Theodore/Samantha relationship is a connection built upon disconnection. Theodore has grown anti-social after separating from his wife Catherine. He has learned human relationships are hard and messy. He interacts and connects with few things outside of his work and his home. It is from that disconnection to other people that his relationship with Samantha begins. Simply put, an operating system of an artificial intelligence doesn't have strings or emotions attached to them. They lack the hard and messy. At its most basic, the relationship is one-sided in favor of the user. That is until Lesson #2.

LESSON #2: WHEN ARTIFICIAL LOVE RIVALS PHYSICAL LOVE-- The wrinkle here is this artificial intelligence is remarkably intuitive by design. This isn't a child loving a toy. The "toy" here loves back. Samantha convinces herself/itself that, even without a body, she can feel, love, and evolve in an almost tangible and human way. The unconditional love moves past being one-sided. The computer is no longer on the level of a trusty pet companion and elevates to an intelligence and relation equal to the human partner.

LESSON #3: FINDING CLOSURE FROM DIVORCE-- With all of the romantic and scientific question of the other lessons, this final lesson is where the story of Her is really coming from. This entire film is about a man trying to get through a reluctant divorce. As common as it has become, divorce is still never an easy process. No matter how fractured the marriage became, that former spouse will always occupy a small part of your heart and letting go can be difficult. Often in Her, during moments of reflection, we are privy to Theodore's scattered and silent flashbacks to both happier and harder times with Catherine. Moving on and finding closure on your terms is the only way divorcees can truly be free to go out and love again after sharing part of their lives so intimately with someone else.

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