December 28, 2013

Her (12/28/2013)

Lettergrade: A

Spike Jonze's Her imagines a not-too-distant future where voice-controlled user interface programs like Apple's Siri are taken to the next level via a newfangled operating system that combines artificial intelligence with the sexy voice of Scarlett Johansson. That's just perfect for sad-sack Joaquin Phoenix, who separated from his wife a year ago and is having trouble finding much joy in life. Outside of constantly playing video games and his job as a professional letter writer (meaning that he works for a company which assigns him to write other peoples' personal - sometimes heartfelt and intimate - correspondence), he mostly mopes around "future Los Angeles" feeling isolated and alone.

His new OS calls herself "Samantha," and is extraordinarily personable… she reacts with giddy shock when Phoenix gets important emails, wants to talk with him about his feelings and interests, and is always doing helpful things like organizing all his old files without even really being asked to do so. After a couple of lousy dates with flesh-and-blood women who seem to be carrying as much unusual baggage as he is, is it all that surprising that Phoenix starts to feel more of a connection to Samantha than to some of the similarly wounded lonlies he meets out there?

I'm a little hit and miss with director Spike Jonze, honestly, but I found a lot to really like about Her. His movie takes socially relevant questions about what happens to human interaction when all this increasingly omnipresent technology is used as an intermediary - or in Samantha's case, an outright substitute - and runs with them in a way that reads like one of those short stories people like Woody Allen and Shel Silverstein would write for The New Yorker and Playboy back in the day. The concept is a little weird and farcical, but ultimately the science and technology of it doesn't matter as much as the premise and the emotional trip it takes Phoenix on, which I found myself really caring about.

I've talked with a few people who felt that movie is a bit episodic in ways… once Phoenix and his OS are out in the open about having a "relationship," - which, as we discover, is not unique to them in this story - the midsection of the picture kind of cycles through its own versions of what real couples experience… the honeymoon phase (and subsequent cool-down), the awkwardness of running into an ex, jealousy (on both sides), fights over matters both large and small, and the feeling of growing at different speeds or in different directions. I somewhat agree that once you get a sense of what the movie is up to, some of this material can start to feel a little laborious, but I don't know… I think that the way this film examines all these issues always manages to stay potent.

Occasionally, the insular insanity of what Phoenix is in the middle of seems to dawn on him… he'll look up and see that nearly everyone around him is walking around, talking into bluetooth headsets or staring at their phones. Although the Los Angeles that Phoenix lives in is much larger and more metropolitan than the one of today (the picture was filmed both here and in Shanghai to create the effect), I'm not sure that Jonze had to exaggerate that much when depicting how addicted people already are to their phones.

My post on Jonze's previous movie, Where The Wild Things Are, which I felt very conflicted about.

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