Sunday, January 19, 2014

In Love With "Her"

It doesn't matter how ludicrous a premise is as long as the ideas behind it are strong the filmmakers are committed to it. And so it is with "Her," Spike Jonze's science-fiction fable about a quiet, depressed man named Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), who falls in love with his new Siri-like operating system, or OS, named Samantha (Scarlett Johanssen). The film is frequently funny, but it takes the relationship between Theodore and Samantha absolutely seriously, and takes care to develop it like any other conventional romantic connection. The pair have their ups and downs, their problems and their issues. Theodore is still coming to terms with his separation with his ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), while Samantha's consciousness is still developing, and she has insecurities about her intangibility.

Because the relationship exists entirely in the conversations that the pair have, the film depends heavily on Phoenix and Johanssen, the later of whom is never seen onscreen. However, the dialogue is so strong and the actors are so committed, it works. Phoenix carries much of the film, often the only character onscreen, playing intimate scenes against nothing more than a voice in his ear. And then there's Johanssen, who manages to convey so much emotion and feeling through her monologues. I admit that I was skeptical when I heard that she was getting some awards attention for this performance, but after seeing the film it's not had to understand why. Samantha's believability as a sentient and vulnerable living being is what the whole relationship and the whole story hinges on, and she's easily one of the best artificial intelligence characters I've ever seen in film.

And around the couple, Spike Jonze creates a melancholy Los Angeles of the near-future, where human life is more intertwined with technology than ever. Creativity is still valued, though, and most of the characters we meet are artists of one kind or another. Theodore works as a writer of heartfelt personal letters. His best friend Amy (Amy Adams) is a documentarian. One of Samantha's many interests is in composing music. Instead of taking photographs to capture the moments between her and Theodore, she writes songs. The film has a unique, delicate atmosphere that is fiercely personal. Nearly everything we see is limited to Theodore's daily personal interactions, and the narrow scope is just right for the story. Larger issues about the ramifications of the OSs becoming part of society are hinted at, but "Her" is primarily concerned with being a love story, and brings up plenty of questions already.

The conversation surrounding "Her" has been fascinating to follow, because this is one of the first films to tackle this subject matter that is so sympathetic to the human that falls in love with the computer. Usually these stories have a dystopian bent, and getting too close to an AI is symptomatic of something wrong with the human partner or the relationship is supposed to be a metaphor for technology becoming too invasive. In "Her," Theodore is perfectly capable of romantic relationships with other women, as we learn from flashbacks to his marriage to Catherine and his efforts with a blind date, played by Olivia Wilde. In addition, Samantha may not be tangible, but it's the film's position that she's a real sentient being and the feelings between her and Theodore are real. So the problems that develop between them are no less valid than the problems faced by any other couple.

"Her" can be seen as a new take on the "My Fair Lady" story, where a romantic partner who is initially guided and defined by man eventually grows beyond his narrow conception of her and becomes something he couldn't anticipate. The commentary on life in the digital age also hits the mark. In a sense Samantha stands in for all technology, conceived of by well-meaning inventors to meet certain human needs, but that becomes an independent entity that takes on a life of its own, with unexpected consequences. I'd hesitate to call it a cautionary tale, though, because Theodore's relationship with Samantha is hardly more damaging than or unhealthy than one he might have had with a physical person.

This may be my favorite Spike Jonze film, because it's so personal and so idiosyncratic. Not that his earlier films weren't these things, particularly "Where the Wild Things Are," but none of them have been this unabashedly romantic. I love that it's not scared to be emotional and corny, and that Theodore is such a sensitive soul whose vulnerabilities are so easy to see. Phoenix's performance isn't very showy, but it's one of his best too. Freddie Quell from "The Master" was a lot of fun, but playing an ordinary man in love with someone that he never lays eyes on is something I don't think many other actors could have pulled off.

Considering the talent involved, I had pretty high expectations for "Her," but I didn't expect to be bowled over to this extent. "Her" is one of the best screen romances in recent memory, and one of the best science-fiction films too. It's easy to make fun of its silly premise, but "Her" makes the strong case that it may not be so silly after all.

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