Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Her

Directed by Spike Jonze.
2013. Rated R, 126 minutes.
Cast:
Joaquin Phoenix
Scarlett Johansson
Amy Adams
Rooney Mara
Olivia Wilde
Chris Pratt
Matt Letscher
Portia Doubleday
Kristen Wiig
Brian Cox
Bill Hader
Laura Kai Chen
May Lindstrom

This is the age of social media. We have fewer real life interactions with other people than ever before. The number of those encounters is dwindling by the day. Her explores one possible reality if that trend continues. Our host for this particular adventure is Theo (Phoenix). He's a lonely guy going through a divorce. For a living, he actually writes personal letters for other people. Like most everyone else, he's constantly plugged in. He checks his email and does just about whatever else he needs to by giving voice commands to whatever device is with him at the moment. It always gives a dull, monotone reply. When he decides it's time to upgrade his operating system, he buys the latest greatest thing - the OS1. It has an incredibly human sounding female voice, after he chooses which gender he prefer his OS to be, so he gives her the name Samantha (Johansson). As he learns shortly after installation, she is a constantly evolving program. she develops so much that she and Theo soon find themselves in a romantic relationship.

On the surface, the premise is utterly ridiculous. To the ear, it sounds so unnatural as to be impossible. However, when put within the context of a society where people can't even be bothered to write their own love letters, it makes perfect sense. It's also logical that such a society could, in fact, spawn from this one. After all, how many of us rely on our devices to both maintain order in our own world and keep in contact with the world we share? How many of us love our smartphones or tablets? Seriously, we are people who wait in line overnight whenever a new iPhone comes out. Why wouldn't some us take that next step and become emotionally involved with the thing we spend the most time with? This becomes especially plausible when those feelings are being reciprocated. That's exactly where Theo is. He is a man starving for a connection to something. When he finds one, he seizes it. It's as real to him as any other relationship.


The brilliance of Her is that it develops this romance so naturally, you have little choice but to buy it. It helps that our stars sell it extremely well, also. Joaquin Phoenix gives an amazing performance. Like Sandra Bullock in Gravity, he spends lots of time acting alone. Where she did her work with a green screen, Phoenix was given the silly sounding task of making googly eyes at his cell phone. Somehow, he makes it feel genuine. The truth of the matter, however, is that while watching him it's probable that you'll involuntarily decide whether you think he's adorable or pathetic. In either case, you won't be able to deny that this is a man going through something he feels is real. On the flip side, Scarlett Johansson, functioning only as a disembodied voice, puts the perfect amount of emotion and inflection into every line. We fully understand that she is a program, but her speech and the thoughts she's conveying are so effortless she occasionally has to remind us of this. That's precisely the way it needs to be to keep us where we need to be.

Where the movie comes up a bit short is in exploring the obvious questions. It spends so much time building a world where such a relationship is possible that it forgets how odd a thing it still is. Theo's soon to be ex-wife Catherine (Mara) expresses some of this, but it feels like the seething of someone going through a break-up, which she is, not any rational thinking. Theo pretty freely shares with others that his OS doubles as his girlfriend. Other than Catherine, they all sorta shrug their shoulders then tell him how wonderful it is. Maybe it is. In any event, it's the type of thing that someone besides the still smarting ex will vocally object to. Instead, we only get to see him going to picnics and get togethers with other couples. It could just be my innate cynicism speaking, but this movie gives human beings way too much credit for our tolerance level in regards to behavior that deviates from the norm.

My fuss over it, not withstanding, the lack of dissenting voices is not a huge drawback. It's something that stood out to me, but may not to others. The rest of the movie is filled with charm, whimsy, and the ups and downs of any other relationship. the twist being that the end-goal is not the machine becoming a human being. This isn't Pinocchio where the puppet will not rest until he's a real boy. Though, there is a time where Sam entertains the notion and seems to be heading in that direction. Rather than going that way, we head down a path that leads us to a bittersweet finale. Coincidentally, this includes another beef I have with Her. It takes another woman, Amy (Adams), and reduces her to plot device rather than expanding on what could have been a really interesting character. That said, Adams does very well with the role. More important than that, or even the place where we wind up, is the journey we take to get there and the questions raised along the way. They are intriguing, as is the movie that surrounds them.

10 comments:

  1. Great review! I loved this one. It was one of my favorites from last year, it was just so thought-provoking.

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    1. Thanks. It is definitely a thought provoking film.

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  2. My favorite film of 2013 as I was just moved by it as I hope there's a future Criterion DVD coming soon as I feel that Scarlett got overlooked by the awards circuit for her voice work.

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    1. I wouldn't have minded ScarJo getting a non, but I understand why she didn't. It's difficult to say one of the best performances of the year is a voice-over job. That said, she was incredibly good.

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  3. A great film. Really thought-provoking. Very perceptive analysis.

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    1. Thank you very much. I thoroughly enjoyed this.

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  4. Wonderful review. "Her" was amongst my top films of the year. I think this film was most notable in making me actually grateful for how technologically film has progressed. We may have lost some of the simple magic of Chaplin-esque films but now we have unique visions like this. It's spectacular how plausible this portrayal of love between human and machine was.

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    1. Thank you. You know what, though? I see this as an achievement in story telling, not technology. Nothing visually stunning occurs, from a special fx standpoint. It's just a well told tale.

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    2. I don't think I would call it visually stunning but I really appreciated how subtle and nuanced this portrayal of the "future" was. It was utterly refreshing from the typical dystopia.

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    3. Subtle and nuanced are two perfect words to describe this movie.

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