Writer/Director Spike Jonze is a household name in the art house community of film geeks and freaks. What that means is that most of his work, while almost always of a high caliber, isn't usually easily accessible by general or casual movie going audiences. His last film Where The Wild Things Are is likely his most commercial film to date but even that wasn't your typical children's story fable.
His latest film Her is yet another strange and wonderful little gem that features a very unusual premise, some fantastic performances from great actors in roles generally not suited for them and is likely to remain an art house success but a main stream curiosity. Although this isn't his best offering, if there were ever a film from Jonze's filmography that is a great starting point for the uninitiated, perhaps this is the best place to take a leap for those more adventurous casual movie goers out there. Read the full review after the break.
Review Vital Stats:
Theater: Arclight Hollywood
Time: 4:00 pm, Dec. 21, 2013
Projector Type: Digital 2D
Film Rating: R
Film Runtime: 2 hr 0 min
Studio: Warner Bros.
Loves: Being John Malkovich
Neutral: Where the Wild Things Are
Hates: That Spike Jonze doesn't have a wider appeal
Changed at the last minute: The voice of Samantha
Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) has just suffered a devastating divorce from his wife (Rooney Mara) and as he attempts to face reality, he finds comfort in both his job where he writes love letters, hate mail and all sorts of correspondence for his clients and in his good friend Amy (Amy Adams) who is a videogame designer that works in his same building. But then one day Theodore decides to upgrade his computer OS (short for Operating System) with a brand new advanced OS that is promised to be an "intuitive entity" which is unique to each and every user. Once activated, the OS which is named Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) turns out to be the woman of Theodore's dreams and the two then forge a very unorthodox bond that leads to a romance unlike any other.
Her is an interesting piece of filmmaking and is yet another strange excursion into the beautifully twisted mind of Spike Jonze, who was responsible for one of the greatest off the wall films in history, Being John Malkovich. His sort of twisted nature isn't what you may think though, he has a certain way of looking at the world and human interaction in general that is unlike any other filmmaker working today. While Malkovich dealt with a hopelessly lost individual who yearned for the love of someone who despised him, here he is dealing with a hopelessly lost individual who yearns for the love of someone who does feel the same way about him, but is unable to show it in a traditional way.
But that doesn't stop our main character Theodore though, nor does it stop Samantha, the computer OS he installed from developing feelings for one another and through virtue of simply having conversations with her and letting her sort through his cluttered desktop, begin a relationship that is one of the most complex screen romances of the year. Where Jonze succeeds most is in the story department by constructing this surreal world where people's fashions are straight out of the 1960's version of our future and how physical human interaction is at an all time low. This is all implied of course, through how we see not only Theodore attached to his earpiece and conversating with his OS, but everyone around him as well.
What may seem strange to us is almost socially acceptable in Jonze's world. Finding someone in a chatroom late one night and immediately beginning a dialog that leads directly into some sort of kinky sex act is set up as a casual way to get a quick booty call. It's as if the geeks of the world have taken over and made what was once only allowed in their mother's basement in secret a totally acceptable way of life. If someone in our world were to confess that they are not only dating their new OS, but are in fact in love with it, chances are they would be met with extreme and never ending taunting and relegated to obscurity due to their pathetic attempt at "creating" love where there really isn't any to be had.
But that is the magic of Jonze's Her, he not only gives us a credible world for this sort of strange romance to take place, but he does it in a way that we ourselves find it somewhat acceptable that this man seems to prefer his computer over a real flesh and blood person. By the end of the film we no longer see this as a relationship between a man and a machine, there is real love between the two of them and we find ourselves hoping that this bizarre romance does indeed work out. This magic is of course in thanks to Jonze's script, but most of the accolades must go to his two lead actors, Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson as the voice for Samantha.
All skepticism towards their relationship and the probability of it seeming even the slightest bit creepy is thwarted by their total devotion to the idea that they do indeed love one another despite never once being on screen with each other. While some may say that Phoenix has the easier role to play since he is able to manifest his emotions visibly for us, which is true for the most part, it is by no means an easier part to play since he must convince us that he is in fact in love with someone he, and us, cannot see. Phoenix's performance here is a tremendous piece of work in how he shows us the broken soul of a man become mended by the love of a solitary voice in his earpiece and is one of this years best male lead performances.
Johansson on the other hand will get most of the spotlight, and deservedly so. This may sound a little crazy, but the fact remains that the character of Samantha, despite not having a physical presence in the film, is one of if not THE most complex female character of the year. Through her vocal performance only, she must convince us that she is nothing more than an artificial intelligence, but also one that learns to feel, become curious about life and most importantly is able to love. Not just say I Love You, but mean it in a way that under any other normal circumstances can only be sold by a look in the actor's eyes.
Her vocal performance is what makes this film work, that is a fact. During early production of the film, the original voice actress (Samantha Morton) was replaced with Johansson after Jonze realized he just wasn't getting what he needed from her to sell it. Morton is a fine actress and how Jonze was forced to replace her with Johansson speaks volumes to how important it was for whomever voiced the character of Samantha to completely and unequivocally nail it, which Johansson did and then some.
Watching Theodore in bed simply talking with Samantha and helping her discover herself while unknowingly falling in love with her becomes the building blocks to one of the most honest love stories of the year, only outdone by this past summer's Before Midnight. Listening to how Samantha grows and becomes more self aware about her feelings towards Theodore and how Theodore helps her realize those feelings is an eye opening experience, especially when Jonze throws in a few curveballs that challenge what our preconceived notions are towards how a sexual relationship between a man and his computer would actually work, which leads to quite possibly the film's most awkward and intimate moment when the inclusion of a sex surrogate is employed.
While there isn't anything inherently wrong with the film, it would be neglectful not to mention a couple of areas where it did feel as though it was dragging its feet. First there is the length, which isn't too bad at just coming under the two hour mark, but there were a few instances throughout where a couple of scenes made to help show us the continued relationship between Theodore and Samantha felt a little unnecessary. This area is directly after they have an argument where Theodore questions her mortality and then eventually make up and we get a series of scenes at a cabin in the woods with them rekindling their love that felt a little overkill. Instead of becoming engrossed more into their relationship I found myself counting the minutes which isn't what I wanted to be thinking at that moment.
Then there is Jonze himself, whose usual stamp of the weird and bizarre is almost non-existent this time around. While that will certainly help sell more tickets and possibly (hopefully) garner more awards attention in the process, it is sad to not see him dissect this subject of a man in love with his computer a little more and explore its more taboo implications. The scene with the surrogate was a step in the right direction and an ending, as well as a strange date between Theodore and a woman played by Olivia Wilde, dodges any possible predictable territory the film could have spiraled into are prime examples of the director's tendency to enrich his films with characters and situations that make us feel uncomfortable yet oddly compelled to see how much further he will go. Instead we are left with the feeling that he could have and should have gone a little further with such a ripe subject as this.
Ultimately though this is a very good film, filled with great performances and a high concept premise that only a thoroughly bizarre individual like Spike Jonze could not only conceputualize, but also make into a two hour film without ever letting its inherent strangeness overcome the central the love story. It may not be the director's best work to date, but it serves as a reminder of the immense talent he has behind the camera. Her is unlike any other film you have seen this year, it tackles its subject with a seriousness that even most conventional love stories fail to do anymore. This is without a doubt one of the most unique films to come out in quite a while and it deserves to be seen by as many people who are willing to explore the strange and surreal mind of Spike Jonze.
If you are looking for a compelling, soulful and heartbreaking look at love and all its baggage but through a deceptively simple premise involving love between man and machine, there is no better film out there right now that tackles the subject with the amount of creativity and uniqueness than Spike Jonze's Her. Through two magnificent performances from its lead actors who make us believe the unbelievable and Jonze's quirky script which, while never going as far as he could have, explores the subject of love in a whole new and often bizarre way. You may have seen countless romances at the theater this year, but through the eyes of Spike Jonze, you have never seen it done quite as differently and as perfectly as this.