Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Review: "Her"

So, yes, “Her” is about a guy who falls in love with his computer.

There’s more to it than that, of course, but that will be the shorthand you hear about the new drama starring Joaquin Phoenix from writer/director Spike Jonze.

Those two, of course, are noted in their respective vocations for breathtakingly original work that often borders on the loopy – such as Phoenix’s brilliant, vexing turn in last year’s “The Master,” or Jonze’s audacious live-action adaptation of the iconic children’s book, “Where the Wild Things Are.”

If you’re tempted to tune out based on that dismissive description: don’t. “Her” is the best film of the year, and possibly the kookiest.

But despite the silly premise, the movie is anything but. There is not a drop of cynicism or irony in this lovely, sad contemplation on love and loneliness.

Phoenix is simply a marvel as Theodore Twombly, a smart, crushingly depressed man going through a bitter divorce who finds a new lease on life by installing an operating system (OS) designed to perfectly simulate a human personality. Dubbing herself Samantha and voiced by Scarlett Johansson, the OS coaxes Theodore out of his pit, helps build him back up, and then becomes his soul mate.

Both are as surprised by this development as anyone, but Phoenix never wavers in the portrait of a lonesome man reaching out for a human connection, even if it’s a fake one. It’s yet another Oscar-worthy turn from an actor who defies categorization.

Theodore works at, which is exactly what it sounds like – writers are hired by people to compose lyrical, deeply personal letters to each other. Theodore is the best there is, having acted as the surrogate for some couples for nearly a decade.

The irony, of course, is that he is performing much the same function for his clients as Samantha does for him. Perhaps that’s why a relationship with her is not so alien to him, since Theodore already existed as the ghost in the machine.

Set in the near future, “Her” arrives at precisely the right moment to comment on our technological evolution, where we’ve created amazing ways to stay connected that leave us more isolated than ever before. With our Siris and our Google Glasses, computers have become our crutches, the prism through which we experience an altered version of our real lives.

Jonze doesn’t get too mired in the specifics and semantics of the science fiction aspect of his tale. Samantha is represented as an ear bud Theodore wears perpetually, through which she speaks to him, and vice-versa. She can “see” through a little tri-fold compact device he carries that includes a camera and screen. Essentially she lives inside his head, though later she can interact with others via phone or speakers.

At first, it seems like Theodore is the only one carrying on an interpersonal dialogue with his OS. One early, funny scene has him walking around a carnival with his eyes closed, Samantha acting as his guide to tell him where to go and what to do. But as time goes on, it seems that more and more people are in the same state, ambling around Los Angeles in individual bubbles of self-imposed solitude, talking to their computers and ignoring the flesh-and-blood creatures around them.

One of them is Amy (Amy Adams), Theodore’s neighbor and old college chum. She seems contented and happily married at first, with Theodore taking the role of the hopeless, romantically inept friend. Later, though, their roles get somewhat switched around.

“I think anybody who falls in love is a freak,” Amy says. “It’s a crazy thing to do. It’s a socially acceptable form of insanity.”

Johansson is wondrous as Samantha, existing as a complete character despite having only a verbal component. We believe her as a real person, because she believes it and Theodore believes it. She may live in the ether of hard drives, communication nets and data clouds, but Samantha is solid and relatable.

Bracingly imaginative and splendidly crafted, “Her” is one of the year’s unlikeliest successes.

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