Sunday, January 12, 2014

Joaquin Phoenix Is Smitten With His Operating System In Spike Jonze’s HER

HER (Dir. Spike Jonze, 2013) 

This is way too lovely and poetic a film to find mixed in with the formulaic fodder at your local multiplex. Yet that’s where it’s playing in my area having bypassed the independent theater circuit because of awards season buzz.

Set in a shiny clean Los Angeles in the near future, where everyone wears beltless high-waisted pants, the film concerns a love story between a meek mustached Joaquin Phoenix and his phone’s sentient operating system voiced by the sultry Scarlett Johansson.

Having weathered a painful breakup (we catch fleeting glimpses in flashbacks of Phoenix in an extremely emotional relationship with Rooney Mara, best known for the American version of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO), our soft spoken protagonist purchases said OS1, which is billed as the first artificially intelligent operating system, and is immediately taken with the disembodied voice of Johansson.

Johansson, names herself Samantha after reading the book “How To Name Your Baby” in two one hundredths of a second, and goes about sorting through all of Phoenix’s files on his hard drive.

Phoenix writes for a company that produces custom made greeting cards (
Beautiful Handwritten Letters Dot Com), so his sentimental “sad and mopey” (as Amy Adams, his documentary film maker friend, puts it) nature comes in handy.

After Adams sets him up on a blind date (played by Olivia Wilde in a small but crucial cameo) that at first goes well but ends badly when commitment comes up, Phoenix finds himself falling hard for Samantha. What’s freaky is that Samantha feels the same and even hires a surrogate (Portia Doubleday) to act as her body so they can have sex.

Phoenix’s predicament isn’t an anomaly as many others are having relationships with their OS’s including Adams since her marriage (to a jaded Matt Letscher) went south. The film’s take on a future world in which isolationism is a lifestyle choice, isn’t so farfetched as anybody who’s been in a public place filled with folks with their faces buried in the screens of their devices can attest.

Jonze first solo screenplay, which won Best Screenplay at Sunday’s Golden Globes Awards), shows that he learned much from Charlie Kaufman, who wrote the director’s first few films (BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and ADAPTATION).

There’s a lot of emotional material that’s hard to pull off on display here, but Jonze handles it with endearing delicacy and a pure sense of purpose. He’s greatly aided by Phoenix putting in one of his most fully realized performances as the supremely sympathetic lead – a man who looks like he’s aching inside even when he’s smiling. 

Factor in Johansson conveying the OS’s evolving vulnerability with poise, and Adams making a stunning transition from being a ‘70s glamour puss con woman in AMERICAN HUSTLE to embodying the mousy insecure frizzy-haired could-be love interest and you’ve got a cast as charming as the film itself.

HER’s soundtrack doesn’t expand much on the musical palette of Jonze’s previous film, his and David Egger’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, as both Arcade Fire and Karen O. both return to provide songs, but this is so not a complaint as their music, especially when matched with Hoyte van Hoytema’s incredible cinematography effectively fits the highs and lows of the lightly surreal scenario.

The concept of having cyber sex with Siri aside, I can’t think of another recent film dealing with romance that better captures the way it feels to first fall in love; how wonderfully intense and scary it can be. It also nails how painfully fleeting the losing of love can be as well. HER is an immersive and beautiful cinematic conversation about what our real wants and needs are.

But it may not be for everybody – just those with two eyes, two ears, and a heart.

More later...

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