Joaquin Phoenix makes a connection with 'Her'
05:00 AM, Dec 18, 2013
Though set in the future, Her is a timely, soulful and plausible love story.
Director-writer Spike Jonze’s latest (***½ out of four; rated R; opens today in select cities) also is an evocative showcase for substantive ideas, stunning photography and production design.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a writer reeling from a separation and struggling with melancholy. He makes his living writing eloquent love letters. But Theodore never approaches his work like a cynical Cyrano de Bergerac.
Slowly and touchingly, he develops a complex relationship with his computer operating system, a Siri-like entity who goes by the name Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Phoenix is sensational and Johansson is pitch-perfect. In a low-key performance light-years from her role in American Hustle, Amy Adams plays Amy, Theodore’s friend and the closest thing he has to a human kindred spirit.
Jonze’s visual flair has been evident since he helmed 1999’s Being John Malkovich, written by Charlie Kaufman, whose distinctive voice appears to have influenced Jonze here.
The director fills the near future, set in Los Angeles, with a panoply of reds clothing, walls and furniture are bathed in crimson hues. But it’s the profound content that gives the film its vibrancy. Jonze explores how we co-exist with technology and posits where our relationship with it could take us.
The film opens with a close-up of Theodore speaking softly about love. As “Letter Writer Number 612,” at a company called “BeautifuHandwrittenLetters.com,” he is dictating a heartfelt message from a woman to her husband on the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary.
“Suddenly, this bright light came and woke me up,” Theodore dictates huskily. “That light was you.”
When not crafting expressive missives, Theodore is in a hazy, emotionally slumbering state himself. Then he’s captivated by an ad for the first artificially intelligent operating system, described as “an intuitive entity that listens to you, understands you and knows you.”
He initiates tentative contact with Samantha, who explains that “the DNA of who I am is based on the millions of personalities of the programmers who wrote me. But what makes me me is my ability to grow through my experiences. Basically, in every moment I’m evolving, just like you.”
His initial reaction is skeptical. But their bond evolves. She begins by cheerfully organizing his computer, and proofreading his letters. Soon she’s offering encouragement on his writing and matching his gusto for a virtual video game.
The more he interacts with the wise, understanding and playful Samantha, the harder he falls for “her.”
The film’s genius is how it grounds the notion of a man falling for an artificially intelligent machine with reality. Just how many clicks away is this from online dating?
The stylistic elements of the film serve to accentuate a world set in a dateless future. Everything looks recognizable. It’s a time when Best Buy and the Los Angeles Times still exist, but China and India are merging.
Fashions appear familiar, even retro. Men wear unusually high-waisted pants, perhaps evoking a simpler era.
The story posits a future where everything is comfortable, if a bit airless. No one seems to want for anything. We don’t see poverty or homelessness or crime. But loneliness still exists.
Jonze’s romantic saga is inventive, intimate and wryly funny. He raises intriguing questions about alienation and how we connect or don’t with our fellow humans.
The film’s final sound is a human breath a reassuring sonic conclusion to a tale about the blurred lines between humanity and technology.