Sunday, December 29, 2013

Movie Review: "Her"

Novelist E.M. Forster once said, "Only connect!" In our world, where people often sitting at the same table can be seen using their smartphones instead of having conversations, it is difficult to build lasting connections.

And in the distant future of Spike Jonze's fantastic Her, connection is even more difficult. People depend upon their computer systems for most of their social interaction. Sad sack Theodore Twombley (Joaquin Phoenix) makes a living writing personal letters for people, to fit their every need and occasion. He has been writing for many of his clients for a number of years, so he has learned how to incorporate personal details (and in some cases, even created those personal details) into his letters. His success is a bit ironic, because he hasn't been particularly lucky in the romance department, and recently separated from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), who has filed for divorce.

One day Theodore purchases a revolutionary new computer operating system (OS), which is purported to adapt to the user's every need. Theodore gets more than he bargained for with his OS, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). At first Samantha helps streamline his emails and his contacts, reminds him of work meetings, and nags him to get out of bed on time. But Samantha isn't just any OS—she's tremendously curious about the world outside, and wants to understand what it's like to feel, to think, and to love.

It isn't long before Theodore, still reeling from the failure of his marriage and seeing the detritus of other relationships, finds in Samantha a soul mate, someone with whom he is moved to share so much, because she seems to understand him and the fragility of his emotions. They joke together, Theodore shares his thoughts and feelings, and, as time progresses, the two even get, umm, cozy. Amazingly, this growing relationship doesn't seem weird to anyone, as many people find themselves in romantic relationships with their operating systems, and even other people's.

Is this really love, or is this simply the adaptation of a computer program to fit its user's needs? Are Samantha's emotions real, or are they simply an amalgamation of her programmers? Is this type of connection better than none, or does it signify Theodore's fear of real intimacy? Can this love story have a happy ending? While this is certainly a quirky story which requires you to suspend your disbelief (perhaps less if you've built relationships with people you've met online or through gaming), you find yourself believing in Theodore and Samantha's relationship, even rooting for them.

This is only the fourth feature film Jonze has directed (after Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Where The Wild Things Are), and he has created a fascinating setting in which relationships like Theodore and Samantha seem completely possible. As self-assured as his direction is (it's certainly not as quirky as his previous films), his screenplay utterly dazzles. There were pieces of dialogue that literally made me say, "wow," and if I had read these lines in a book, I definitely would have highlighted them as phrases to savor.

Joaquin Phoenix gives an absolutely terrific, moving performance as Theodore. It's honestly the second-best performance I've seen of his after his mastery in Walk the Line—he combines vulnerability, tenderness, fear, and bursts of confidence tremendously well. I found myself wanting to shout at him not to withdraw from Samantha when his emotions were getting confused, as he apparently did with his wife.

Scarlett Johansson gives great voice. You forget at times that Samantha isn't a real person, as Johansson imbues her with such life, such passion and curiosity. It almost makes you long for an operating system of your very own. She and Phoenix have terrific chemistry, and it's a shame that the Academy doesn't recognize voice performances, because she really is such an integral part of the movie.

Amy Adams, as an old friend and former girlfriend of Theodore's, does some quietly moving work (and has some insightful dialogue), while Rooney Mara doesn't have much to do, but brings some emotional fragility to her one scene. I wasn't sure what to make of Chris Pratt's role as a colleague of Theodore's, but he was his usual goofily likeable self.

I've stated numerous times before that I'm a sap—emotionally charged movies and books really tend to resonate for me. But regardless of that, I thought Her was absolutely fantastic, and very well might be my favorite movie of the year. Time will tell...

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