Thursday, December 26, 2013

HER is a Romantic-Comedy-Sci-Fi Stunner

HER Review:

- In the wrong hands, HER could very easily have been a major bust. The premise - in the near future, a lonely man falls in love with his computer's operating system - is both fascinating but also rife with potential to go very wrong, if not handled with care. That, I think, is what's so astonishing about Spike Jonze's film: he never goes where you think he's going to go, never takes the easy or obvious route, and crafts a funny, humanistic story that surprises with its nuance and intelligence. This is, quite simply, a masterfully done film - a surprisingly cerebral sci-fi film that's also a romantic comedy. What's more, HER is one of those rare films that manages to say something profound about the way we live our lives today, all while managing not to hit you over the head with its themes. Jonze seems less set on making a definitive statement about what's right or wrong with the film's unusual central relationship. Instead, he's interested in simply examining it - trying to figure out, in his own head, how this all works, and what that says about us in a world that is not all that far removed from the film's future. To go along with Jonze on that journey is to experience one of the great films of 2013.

HER is set in the not-too-distant future. Our protagonist is Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix). Theodore is a gifted writer, who works at a company that creates and sends faux hand-crafted love letters - a sort of novelty gift, like a more elaborate Hallmark greeting card. Theodore's job is an odd one: he dictates meticulously-composed prose to create these highly-personal seeming letters, but the whole thing is a fiction, a rouse. The feeling of loneliness that such a job would seem to foster is doubly apparent with Theodore - he's recently split from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), but still holds off on making the divorce official, unable to fully let go. Unable to shake thoughts of Catherine, he lives a mostly antisocial life, content to play videogames and stay in, reluctant to date or put himself out there. However, Theodore's life unexpectedly changes when, one day, he updates his computer operating system via a popular new OS update. It's a seemingly mundane thing, but Theodore quickly realizes that this new OS is something else, something unique. With an uncannily human-sounding female voice (Scarlett Johansson) - that speaks to Theodore through various devices and earpieces - the OS dubs itself Samantha, and begins a shockingly fast evolution from simple machine to complex being, capable of real emotion and feeling. At least, it seems real. As Theodore becomes closer and closer to Samantha - thinking of her, over time, as a person, a friend, a lover - he, and we, begin to wonder whether Samantha is truly, essentially, human ... or merely a very sophisticated simulation - a clever illusion designed to sucker in lonely guys like Theodore.

Jonze doesn't just present Samantha as a bit of magical movie-fantasy. To his credit, he really considers her evolution from all angles, and there's a surprising amount of science behind the fiction. What I found really fascinating was the idea that Theodore's relationship with Samantha wasn't unique - he's not just some nutty guy who falls in love with a computer. No, the movie's most brilliant twist might be that this new OS becomes a phenomena, and all over, people begin "dating" or befriending their OS's. And so, thanks to some very crafty plotting, HER becomes about more than just one man's eccentricities, but about something that affects everyone, alters the world at large. The movie morphs into a very eerily accurate extension of the way we live now - glued to our phones and tablets and increasingly shutting off the real world in favor of the digital one. Jonze builds this world so smartly and cleverly that you can't help but be enthralled. What's even better is that Theodore's relationship with Samantha is only the beginning, as Jonze isn't content to end things where you suspect they might end. No, Jonze keeps pushing the story and pushing the world of the movie to see how far he can take things, to what logical extensions of the plot he can get to. And man, that's fun to watch unfold. How rare is it in film to see things push past the usual third-act finale and go even deeper and farther? To me, part of what elevates HER to greatness is that it just keeps defying expectation. It left me constantly confused and delighted as to where it was going and how it would get there.

The other pretty incredible thing about this film is its triple-threat acting combo of Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, and Amy Adams (who appears in a somewhat small but absolutely crucial role as Theodore's geeky friend and confidante Amy). 

Phoenix has been on a tear of late. Even though I had some issues with The Master, I was floored by his work in it, and he's almost as good here. Phoenix plays the part of Theodore in a manner that feels completely raw and exposed. Theodore is sort of a sad sack in some ways, but he's also very human, very real-seeming, and very empathetic. What's remarkable is that Phoenix gives just the right mix of skepticism and wonderment with regards to Samantha. This is a guy who, on one level, is lonely and wounded and ripe to find solace in an artificial intelligence that essentially evolves to be his perfect (albeit non-corporeal) woman. But on another level, there is an awareness that what he's getting into is strange and in many ways unnatural. Phoenix's Theodore approaches his relationship with Samantha with a similar mix of optimism and doubt that we, today, might approach online dating or long-distance relationships. Phoenix sells it wholly and completely. 

As for Johansson ... going in, I found it hard to believe that a performance as a disembodied voice could truly be Oscar-worthy. But - holy crap - this is an absolutely incredible, very much Oscar-worthy performance from ScarJo, even despite the fact that she never actually appears on screen in any way, shape, or form. She kills it as Samantha, believably evolving her digital persona from human-like to almost-fully-human in a way that's both remarkable and slightly scary. Again, it's amazing just how much we come to buy into the Theodore-Samantha relationship. What seems potentially silly on paper feels genuine, in large part because of how well Johansson makes us believe in this disembodied voice as a real being - not quite human, but naive and curious about the world in a way that's endearing, at times heartbreaking. Samantha's voice is the key to making this movie work, and Scarlett's performance is totally convincing.

Seeing Amy Adams in HER is sort of amazing if you've also recently seen her fantastic performance in American Hustle. There, she's a glamorous, scheming con-artist. Here, she's a mousy, slightly awkward videogame developer. Her character, Amy, is an old friend of Theodore's from college, and she's stuck in a relationship with a stuffy guy who doesn't take an interest in her creative ambitions. Amy - in her own way lonely and struggling - is a fascinating counterpoint to Theodore. I won't spoil the ways in which Amy's story ends up paralleling and intertwining with Theodore's, but again, Jonze never hits you over the head with obvious developments. The way that Adams makes Amy into this vulnerable, and again, all-too-human and relatable character is another reason why the movie succeeds beyond expectation.

There are some other excellent turns in the film. One standout is Rooney Mara, as Theodore's ex - a woman who Theodore remembers as happy and vibrant, but who, over time, grew colder and more distant. Another is Chris Pratt, as Theodore's jovial co-worker who is probably the movie's least-quirky character. Having a more alpha-male character like Pratt's around is another subtle stroke of genius. It gives us yet another perspective on how the wider world might view an OS like Samantha. In a lesser movie, Pratt would probably have just played the bully who beats up on Theodore. But his character here is actually Theodore's buddy, and their dynamic is a lot of fun.

HER blends humor, romance, and sci-fi more seamlessly than it's got any right to. There are a lot of really funny moments in the film, like the scenes where we check in on the motion-controlled videogame that sucks up Theodore's time, in which his avatar is led around by a foul-mouthed cartoon character. The movie is also, legitimately, one of the best romances I've seen on film. Like I said, there's a realness and rawness to the Theodore-Samantha relationship that you don't see captured on screen in most stories about two actual people. Finally, the world of this film is just so well thought-out, from fashions (high-waisted pants are in) to tech (pocket-watch style smart phones). I don't think HER was quite sold as a sci-fi film, but it really is. Shot in LA and Shanghai, Jonze creates a fascinating near-future cityscape that is, truly, a reflection of the world we live in now.

I've tried to be relatively careful with how I talk about this film, because there are so many great little moments that I didn't see coming, but that make for some excellent and thought-provoking post-movie discussion. HER is a film that hits your head and your heart. Its pacing is at times a bit methodical, but soon enough I was absorbed in its narrative, and just when I was sure I knew where and how it would end, a new twist came along that reshaped the whole film. What Jonze has accomplished here is right up there with his other great directorial efforts like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - like that one, this is a film that will provoke discussion for many years to come.

My Grade: A

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