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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Review: Her (2013)

* * * 1/2

Director: Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams

Of all the questions that Spike Jonze's Her asks, the most pressing is, what does it mean to be human? It takes more than a body, surely, yet while a body may not define a person's humanity, it would seem to be an essential part of it, giving people the ability to physically connect and physically experience the world. But, as experience and connection increasingly become more virtual than physical, but no less real, our definitions may have to change. In Her the meaning of what it is to be human is expanded, while at the same time the limitations of human beings is acknowledged. Technology advances at an increasingly fast rate, and though humans may consider the attainment of "consciousness" as the end point of technological advancement, it may actually only be the beginning. Her is a charming film with a great deal on its mind, exploring this theme and others, deftly mixing science fiction and romance, comedy and drama, and exploring intellectual themes without sacrificing heart or soul.

Set at an unspecified time in the future, Her is about Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), who is employed writing "personal handwritten letters" (by handwritten they mean dictated to a computer and typed in a cursive style) and is in the process of divorce from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara). Isolated despite the efforts of his friend, Amy (Amy Adams), and lonely, when Theodore learns of a new artificially intelligent operating system, he decides to give it a try. Within minutes of installation, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), is welcomed into his life, surprising him with her ability to process information and interact with him in a way that an actual human would. Samantha quickly becomes his confidante and friend, convincing him to go out on a date with a woman (Olivia Wilde) Amy has been trying to set him up with. The date goes well, at first, and then takes a turn at the end when the woman begins pushing for some assurance that Theodore is going to make a long-term commitment to her, causing him to retreat and the date to come to an abrupt end with her declaring him to be "weird." Theodore goes home, where Samantha commiserates with him and the emotional intimacy between the two grows stronger, strong enough that Theodore begins to consider Samantha his girlfriend.

Theodore's relationship with Samantha is embraced by some - Amy, who has gotten an OS of her own, and Theodore's co-worker Paul (Chris Pratt) - but written off by Catherine, who accuses Theodore of being unable to deal with a real woman with needs, desires, and dreams of her own. What Catherine doesn't understand, and what perhaps Theodore himself doesn't quite understand at first, is that Samantha does have needs, desire and dreams of her own, a fact which at first draws Theodore to her, but then begins to drive a wedge between them. Samantha becomes insecure about her lack of a body and talks Theodore into agreeing to let her hire a sexual surrogate, an adventure that ends in disaster and tears when Theodore, uncomfortable with the idea from the beginning, decides that he can't go through with it after all. Fortunately for Theodore, Samantha's insecurity is short lived. Unfortunately for him, Samantha is always evolving and as quickly she developed consciousness, she develops beyond the type of consciousness that human beings are capable of, leaving Theodore feeling shut out. Samantha is moving to another plane, one to which Theodore can't follow because human evolution is so much slower than technological evolution.

Although Her is being sold as a comedy and is often funny, particularly at the beginning, it's more of a gentle drama, one concerned with themes like loneliness and the decreasing ability of human beings to connect with each other. The scene of Theodore's blind date, for example, is played for laughs with Wilde's character turning with the suddenness of a switch being flipped, going from fun and flirtatious to desperately serious and needy within seconds, but it speaks directly to the film's very serious themes. As technology makes everything more immediate, we're losing the ability to work for things; we want to have connections, but we don't want to spend time building them. Although the film is quick to state that the OSes aren't slaves in that they don't develop romantic relationships with their human operators simply because the human operator wants to, a relationship of some sort is automatic by virtue of the fact that the OS is there, interacting with the operator as if it is a human being. Theodore's connection with Samantha comes easily - it's maintaining the connection in light of the fact that Samantha's growth as a being outpaces his own, that proves to be the problem.

Phoenix's performance as Theodore proves, if his performance in The Master left any doubt, how fortunate it is that his self-imposed exile from acting was short-lived. It's a sensitive performance that requires him to wear the wounds of his character's experience on his sleeve and to depict a character who is isolated from those around him, without that sense of isolation creating a barrier that prevents the audience from connecting with him. He's wonderful here, as is Johansson, whose voice work succeeds in creating the idea of a corporeal character. The relationship between Theodore and Samantha becomes not just real to them, but real, full stop, and the narrative is propelled forward by the painful arc of that relationship, from the emotional intensity of the beginning through to the end when the two have drifted too far apart. As love stories go, Her's is "bizarre" on paper, but works onscreen thanks to the efforts of Phoenix, Johansson and, of course, writer/director Jonze, all of whom take the relationship utterly seriously even in the film's lighter scenes. Her may be a story of a man and a machine, but in many ways it's one of the more realistic relationship movies to come out of Hollywood in a long time.


msmariah said...

I've been curious as to how they could make a movie about a guy in love with his phone, but you make me want to see it. It's good to come across your blog. I've really enjoyed reading through it. Following you now.

Norma Desmond said...

It's a premise that could have gone awry pretty easily, but everyone involved commits so fully that it works.

Thanks for the follow!