It’d be easy to describe Spike Jonze’s new film, Her, in snarky or silly fashion: “Well, it’s about a lonely schlub who falls madly in love with a virtual woman.” If you immediately think of that obscure 1984 movie called Electric Dreams (or get visions of Philip J. Fry smooching a virtual Lucy Liu), then you’re the sort of sci-fi geek I respect — but let’s get all ideas of novelty and “gimmickry” out of the way right now. Yes, the fascinating and frequently sublime Her is about a man who falls in love with an artificial intelligence operating system, but once you get past the film’s simplest ideas, it quickly blossoms into a weird, warm, and very satisfying statement about the nature of love: how it works, why we need it, and (most important) what it does to us.
Spike Jonze makes strange films. Whether they’re brilliant or absurd is up to the individual viewer, but after features like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., and Where the Wild Things Are, only a foolish movie freak would ignore this refreshingly “anti-formula” filmmaker. Some of the guy’s films (like Synechdoche, New York, which he produced) leave me entirely cold but Jonze is so consistently unique, I doubt I’ll ever get tired of discovering his latest movies. And this new one is simply excellent.
Supported by one of the most open, honest, and oddly satisfying screenplays in perhaps a decade, Her is, indeed, about a nice anonymous nobody called Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) who purchases a super-advanced computer operating system that is powered by a self-aware — and perpetually evolving — operating system with a female voice. (Theodore is no idiot; he chooses the voice that sounds like Scarlett Johansson.) And then Theodore gradually proceeds to fall madly in love with “Samantha.”
In the hands of less inspired writer/directors, a concept like this would hit the screen like Short Circuit, the aforementioned Electric Dreams, or any other sci-fi film in which a man falls in love with a robot, and vice versa. But it’s that reversal — that the “virtual” woman also falls madly in love with a human being — that gives Her such a strange poignancy and off-kilter charm. Buried not too deep beneath a sci-fi / rom-com concept is a wonderfully insightful story about how love begins, how it blossoms, and how it manages to blow it itself out. Making “Samantha” a non-corporeal “concept” of a woman is a brilliant conceit. Theodore doesn’t want to create a perfect woman, but technology has allowed him to create a woman who is perfect for him. Suffice to say that romantics of both genders will find much to appreciate in Jonze’s dry, low-key, endlessly fascinating screenplay.
Her is also a non-stop buffet of delights for film fanatics: Joaquin Phoenix is simply brilliant as he goes from slightly off-putting to entirely lovable over the course of the film; Ms. Johansson brings an essential sense of warmth and vibrancy to “Samantha” while using only her voice; the supporting cast does its job remarkably well (particularly Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, and Olivia Wilde); and the “feel” of the film is that of slightly advanced sci-fi mixed with a sardonic tone that never goes for the mean joke or obvious answer.
I could dedicate additional paragraphs to Owen Pallett’s score or the quietly dazzling cinematography of Hoyte van Hoytema, note how unexpectedly funny and quietly honest this film is, or comment on how Jonze seems to get more confident and accomplished with each successive film, but I think the point is clear: Her is a very smart, highly entertaining, and very touching movie, and I feel like I’m a slightly better person for having seen it. Not sure you can give a film a nicer compliment than that.
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