Words: Rob DeStefano

her 2

What do you want to do today? I don’t know. What’s on your mind? I don’t know. What kind of food do you want? I don’t know. Forget a pregnant woman’s craving for eggplant parmigiana with peanut butter cups, deciding what type of meal would most satisfy your system at a given moment is not a black and white selection. First we factor in the taste we want: do we introduce our buds to something with spice, or is it the sensation of the sweet that’s required? Traveling down the tract, we then have another choice: should the post-digestion feeling leave us warm and full (Paula Deen’s Lucky Charm encrusted stick of butter) or lightweight and healthy (triple-washed kale)? Then there’s cost and convenience that needs to be factored in, along with other nonsense, making the “I don’t know” a perfect substitution for the time it takes to calculate and process all of these thoughts. Spike Jonze is undoubtably a complex and intelligent filmmaker. He manipulates the medium to serve up an immediate and visceral feeling, even when some of his stories require extra unpacking. The characters in his fourth feature, Her, habitually respond with “I don’t know.” It derives from complication, and it feels honest and empathetic, fitting the film perfectly into his impressive and now increasing body of work.

Set in a not too distant future, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is a separated thirty-something plugging away at a corporate letter company: it’s like a personalized Hallmark subscription where Theodore can use his skill for eloquence and send charming letters to your loved one. The office receptionist, an unnamed yet recurring character played by Chris Pratt, looks up to Theodore, so we assume that this fictional profession comes with respect. Aside from his long-time friend Amy (Amy Adams), our protagonist marches through his days with no real confidant. He eats some delivery. He plays a video game in which a foul mouthed precocious hologram plagues him. And he has some interesting conversations on adult friend finder (I won’t ruin this moment). This is all part of the routine, until he orders a new operating system, the OS-1. The most obvious comparison is an advanced, nearly omnipresent version of Siri. His configuration customizes his OS-1 as Samantha (Scarlett Johanson), and she is capable of acquiring new information as she interacts with her user. Samantha reads through thousands of emails in under a second – you can learn a lot about a man by examining his trash – and before long, Theodore finds himself connecting with her more successfully than he can with those around him.

What a goofy concept for a movie. I hope the log line pitched for funding was, “Joaquin Phoenix falls for an earpiece.” But giving this another minute of thought reveals how this idea of non-human interdependence is not foreign: Cast Away, Lars and the Real Girl, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, and hell, the can of beans from Wet Hot American Summer. Jonze said in his Q&A that he didn’t set out to specifically make a social statement, but the content for this association should be given some recognition. It’s common knowledge that the increasing integration of computers has altered, to an extent, our patterns of relation. Studies show that people are more likely to be open with one another through internet conversation, turning online dating services into an industry. The first genuine bond that Jonze shows us is that between Theodore and Samantha. He then writes for Samantha the perfect foil, the fading wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), who is a bundle of rolling emotion, so much that she accuses her spouse of pulling away because he would rather avoid dealing with it. “Prozaac can make it better,” said The Offspring. The film chases through the streets, bathes on the beaches, and glides through the skies of a hazy Los Angeles: it’s shot in gorgeous, I mean gorgeous, warm tones by Hoyte Van Hoytema, which are accompanied by an Arcade Fire composed score. Despite the Lucky Charm encrusted stick of butter type aesthetic, the city feels lonely. When Theodore is not at a high with Samantha, there’s an undeniable disconnect in the air. I think it’s safe to say Jonze has spent time in a city.

It would be strange if his film didn’t peel like an onion. To arrive at tackling those evocative images of aloneness, Jonze plays with the intricateness of feeling. Where the Wild Things Are might be his most direct vision of this: a boy at odds with himself, flipping from excitement to anger. Her uses several flashback montages to meld the happy and the sad, rarely giving us one without the other. Our sentiments change. As Samantha’s comprehension grows, she is easily imbued by new data. This is no different than our own development, and it’s especially challenging when it affects someone else.

These thoughts might come across as portraying the film as a pessimistic treatise on humanity’s direction. It’s far from that. It’s actually laugh-out-loud funny at times. The cast is clearly all acting in the same fantastical world, hitting comedic and dramatic beats with perfect delivery. A great chunk of the runtime is spent with Theodore’s face eating up the frame. Joaquin Phoenix makes it work – this character is a far departure from many of his recent roles, and it is an incredible welcome. He shares most scenes with Scarlett Johansson, and though she is just contributing her voice, she effectively conveys in her speech a humanistic droid. Even Amy Adams, who has been too aloof in projects leading to this, gives a tender performance. In a later scene we see her playing a computer game, similar to The Sims, and it is easily one of the funniest.

So, what did you think of the movie? “I don’t know.” That would be such a convenient answer. This human condition we all face is quite strange. Artists like Spike Jonze give us entertaining flashlights to help. It’s pretty damn beautiful.

Grade: A

Writer/Director: Spike Jonze
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt, Olivia Wilde
Production Co: Warner Brothers
Release Date: January 2014


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