Review: Her (Jonze, 2013)
In Spike Jonze’s latest film Her, Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a professional letter-writer for-hire who composes personal correspondence with his creative mind, sensitive nature, and some high-tech voice-recognition software. While he’s good at his job, he’s also going through a divorce. He can clearly express feelings for others, but has begun closing himself off emotionally. That’s his baseline when a new interactive operating system is introduced to the world–one which can think for herself, and starts by naming herself Samantha (voice by Scarlett Johansson). Through time, she becomes a surrogate girlfriend for Theodore. He lives in a world where a lot of relationships have a degree of inauthenticity, as his career demonstrates, so why not fall in love with your computer? But, it’s not too long before the degree of their intimacy loses this viewer.
Don’t get me wrong: I wanted to love the hell out of this film. I came in with low expectations and was ready for anything. While this cautionary tale is fun and inventive and the first half hour or so is really some of the best film this year, the story’s structure falls mercy to the very circumstances its protagonist invites into his life. Watching scene after scene of a man acting opposite an omniscient voice with no physical manifestation become arduous after a while. It’s only when Theodore seeks out interactions with actual people that the film breathes again, but it’s not very long before the next instance where he succumbs to his comfortable life as a recluse. And, Phoenix, as talented as he is (Two Lovers, The Master) is too self-involved a performer to provide the necessary comic relief to make his solitude bearable (though he did get his share of laughs from some of the audience I saw it with). The woman I sat next to wasn’t impressed. “He always plays troubled souls.” Amy Adams (loved the way her director-wannabe character was styled to complement her naturalistic performance) and Rooney Mara provide solid supporting work. Johansson was rather poetically cast as Theodore’s vocal-only rebound relationship eerily carrying the name of its original actress (Johansson replaced Samantha Morton). She played the female lead in Lost in Translation, written and directed by Jonze’s ex-wife Sofia Coppola. (Amy Adams also plays a character named “Amy.”)
Her is technically a romantic comedy-drama, but also science-fiction, as Theodore lives in a hyper futuristic Los Angeles, with the city sprawl it has become known for achieving higher levels in structures and wider expanse. Buildings run for miles. We hear about Runyon Canyon, but we don’t actually see it. Instead, we get little grassy plots geometrically structured on the top of building’s roofs. A lot of science-fiction movies/television reach into upcoming centuries or even decades, which over time often prove to be a little too optimistic in just how quickly human civilization will advance technologically. The undated Her, thanks in part to production designer K.K. Barrett (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, two films by Sofia Coppola, and all of Spike Jonze’s films) creates a future that actually looks like it could happen, and it probably won’t take that long. Jonze masterfully built this unassuming, believable context in which it isn’t that difficult to buy the story’s main conceit as actually being plausible. The interiors are white, immaculate, IKEA-friendly spaces devoid of personality, with little splashes of translucent and neon colors. The men walk around with flattened crotches–slacks hiked up to their navel (Costume Designer Casey Storm has worked on all of Jonze’s films). The movie’s look is incredibly beautiful and easy to admire, and the evocative score is quite mesmerizing.
After shifting in my seat for the umpteenth time well into the film, it occurred to me again that this is one of the few award contending scripts this year which I didn’t have the pleasure of reading beforehand. I wish it had been available, because I can only imagine how well this would have worked on paper. Visually and aurally, Her is extremely successful, but the marriage between the cinematic and literary elements is a disappointing one ultimately.
From a science-fiction point-of-view, the film reminded me of Deckard’s relationship to Rachael in Blade Runner, as well as 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s Hal. But, it’s essentially a romantic comedy-drama with an original twist; something in the family of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I can see Jonze getting nominated for screenwriting, and perhaps even winning. Getting mentioned in the directing field is even a possibility (Jonze’s first two films with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman were big hits with the Academy). But, I have a hard time imagining Joaquin Phoenix making it in, especially having been fortunate enough to have gotten nominated last year after putting his foot in his mouth during an award season interview for a lesser performance (and up against such a strong field of competition). A nomination for production design seems improbable, but dare I suggest it? Arcade Fire provided the score along with collaborator Owen Pallet. I don’t know if the composition will qualify, but if it does, it certainly stands a shot. Of course, this is all based on the movie grossing somewhere in the ballpark of $10M – $15M. If it makes a great deal more than that, all bets are off. It currently has a 95 MC (8 reviews), and 100% RT (14 reviews).
(Song) > Screenplay > (Score) > Director > Picture > Production Design > Actor
The cinematography is from Hoyte Van Hoytema (Let the Right One In, The Fighter, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). Jonze’s editor Eric Zumbrunnen had assistance from Jeff Buchanan. Vincent Landay has produced all of Jonze’s films, and Megan Ellison joined him for this particular venture.