Sunday, January 26, 2014
The past is just a story we tell ourselves.
When we meet protagonist Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), he's working at a job composing letters for other people, the first of many nifty aspects of the film's near-future setting that suggest how technology might continue to influence the ways we communicate with each other. Theodore has been separated from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), for a year, and is living a solitary life that seems comfortable if not content. Jonze does a great job in these early scenes of expressing the kind of raw, awkward desire for connection that we've all experienced in some form - Theodore's idle sexual fantasies clash with the painful memories of his marriage's end, and an attempt at phone sex ends disastrously (and hilariously). Jonze's take on social networking is refreshing - rather than ranting about how our gadgets have made us less capable of intimacy, he suggests that at our core is a need to connect that, for all our insecurity and self-doubt, has and will continue to define (transcend?) our means of communicating that need.
I feel like I'm being disingenuous in talking around the ways that Her touched a nerve with me. I've been divorced for about a year, separated for much longer than that; this doesn't feel like a confession, exactly, as many of you already knew that. A lot of you have gone through the same thing and, unfortunately, a lot of you will eventually. Spike Jonze got divorced several years ago, and while I don't mean to speculate about how much he's drawing from his own experiences, this is clearly the work of a guy who gets it. And while I've healed from the experience and have grown up a bit as a result, there are moments in Her that capture that experience with frightening accuracy - there's a montage of brief memories accompanied by the scratching noise of a pen on the soundtrack that is devastating. What's so perfect about Samantha, the operating system that Theodore falls for, is that she's an ideal object of affection for someone who has gone through a divorce. She's sweet and flirtatious and empathizes with Theodore, but more importantly, she quickly learns to express her own needs, and she challenges Theodore to grow and be his best self. The beautiful irony of Jonze's screenplay is that he starts with a premise that lends itself to an easy dynamic - the manic pixie dream computer teaches the sad guy to love again - and quickly takes it in a drastically different and more interesting direction.
It says a lot about how well the movie works that there's so much to discuss about a character that only exists as a disembodied voice on the soundtrack. As with Jonze's two collaborations with Charlie Kaufman, Her begins with a goofy, high-concept idea that soon proves to be a means to explore bigger themes. However, while Jonze has always been a brilliant stylist who elicits great performances from his casts, Kaufman has such a strong voice that it was unclear how much authorship to attribute to the director. Her is the first movie solely written by Jonze (he co-wrote Where the Wild Things Are with Dave Eggers); maybe I shouldn't have been, but I was surprised by how mature and frank his writing is. If anything, Jonze is more emotionally direct than Kaufman. When Theodore and Samantha move beyond the early infatuation stage to the more complicated process of trying to sustain a relationship, it hardly matters that Samantha is a computer - it feels painfully true to life. It helps that, as Samantha, Scarlett Johansson creates a fully believable character using only her voice; Samantha grows, over the course of the movie, from an adolescent into a being with an endless capacity for growth, and it's largely thanks to Johansson's performance that this evolution works. And Phoenix does a great job of making us believe that Theodore's relationship with Samantha is not only real but transformative. There are, admittedly, a few moments where I found his performance distractingly mannered, but for the most part, that unguarded, even feminine, quality that Phoenix has onscreen works wonderfully here. The supporting cast is excellent as well, particularly Amy Adams as a sympathetic friend (the game she's designing, incidentally, is hilarious) and Olivia Wilde, who succeeds in creating a memorable, wounded character in just one scene.
The production design by K.K. Barrett imagines a future that is neither apocalyptic nor utopian, defined by shiny, colorful interiors that are at once utilitarian and warm. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema favors a soft, tactile approach to lighting both the sets and the actors' faces, capturing some of the most strikingly intimate closeups in recent memory. The effect is that of a vision of the future that is hopeful in a real, earned way. Samantha makes a decision, near the end of the film, that speaks to the nature of artificial intelligence but also carries with it the notion that humans, too, are not only capable of growth and progress but are inevitably moving towards enlightenment. Her is a feel-good movie in the best way; this is probably a strange way to describe a critically acclaimed movie by a director I already like, but it's the most pleasant surprise of 2013.