Her (2013): Spike Jonze’s Hip Movie, Starring Joaquin Phoenix

Can you dig a love story between a handsome lonely guy and a sexy machine, which is bodiless but possesses an alluring human voice?

That’s what we get in Spike Jonze’s remarkable “Her,” a singularly postmodern, surreal screwball comedy, graced with sad and elegiac touches.  The tale deals in a subtle and profound way with how our technology has changed the way we live, perceive ourselves, and interact with others, both machines and humans.

While most filmmakers are behind their times in terms of ideas, or at best reflecting contemporary mores, Spike Jonze is a visionary director with a distinctive perspective on the endlessly changing American life.

After his last film, “Where the Wild Things Roam,” which divided critics but was his biggest commercial success to date (grossing $77 million), Jonze is back on terra ferma with “Her,” his fourth, most ambitious and fully realized feature.  As such, it fulfills the promise Jonze had shown in his dazzling debut, “Being John Malkovich” and his follow-up, “Adaptation.”

Jonze began on a very high note: His 1999 debut is his most critically acclaimed picture to date (93 percent of the reviews were favorable), followed by “Adaptation” (91 percent positive critiques), though both works were labeled art films and thus attracted specialized audiences. (Each grossed in the $20 million range domestically).

In contrast, “Her” is so original, so entertaining, so touching, and so relevant to the way we live NOW that, with the right marketing and handling Warner can turn this movie into a major winner. The film’s romantic nature should attract young, hip and cool urban dwellers who supported Jonze’s former works, but there is strong potential for crossing-over and recruiting new aficionados, fans of the sci-fi and fantasy-fable genres. Additionally, avid movie-goers may want to see yet another stellar performance from lead Joaquin Phoenix, the most versatile and accomplished actor of his generation.

Serving as a closing night of the 2013 N.Y. Film Fest, “Her” will next be shown in the competition line of the upcoming Rome Film Fest.

At the end of the screening, my friend speculated on how StanleyKubrick, the singular trend-blazer, would have reacted to “Her,” having made the most influential sci-fi of the twentieth century, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” in which the central part was arguably played by the computer, HAL 9. Jonze’s “Her” is decidedly and unmistakably movie of–and for–the 21th century.
Sociologists and psychologists will have a field day analyzing how our view of technology and machines has changed over the past four decades. Spielberg played a major role in changing the landscape of the sci-fi genre in two brilliant movies, the 1977 “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and the 1982 “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, in which the aliens were benevolent, well-meaning figures and not the menacing forces of evil they used to be in most Hollywood sci-fi pictures of the past (especially in the 1950s).

Jonze goes beyond Spielberg (“A.I.”) in allotting artificial intelligence a positive, even romantic view, not the least because she is an attractive female named Samantha and voiced by Scarlett Johansson.

One reason why “Her” may be more coherent, unified, and personal film is that it’s the first of Jonze’s four films to be conceived and scripted by him. The former films relied on collaboration with the eccentric writer Charlie Kaufman (“Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation”), who went on to become a director of his own.

In Jonze’s conception, the future is anything but dystopian, as has been the norm of most Hollywood’s futuristic sagas, and there are no indications of “End of the World” as we know it. “Her” is at once grounded in contemporaneous reality, and also graced with poetic touches of surrealism pointing to the near future.

Jonze does follow generic conventions by setting his story in Los Angeles, Hollywood’s favorite locale for dystopian vision and mass destruction, but he avoids being specific as to the particular year or time of the tale.

Angelinos will get a kick out of the fact that the prevalent mode of transport is the subway (wishful thinking?) rather than private expensive cars. The landscape is dominated by skyscrapers of every height and style imaginable. More importantly, ideologically, there are no major class conflicts or racial tensions, and other urban ills seem to be under control, if not entirely resolved.

But this is a Jonze film, and so the focus is on the newly complex, intricately structured human relations, inevitably shaped and potentially damaged by the new technologies and the new social media: cellular phones, Facebook, Twitter, and so on. These technical innovations create the illusion that we are never alone, but we are both alone and lonely, spending more time with our technological gadgets than with other human beings. (Implicitly, the movie raises the questions of when was the last time you really saw or even called your family and friends, rather than texting and messaging them?)

This milieu becomes immediately apparent when the protagonist, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), is introduced. A former magazine writer, Theodore, following in the footsteps of Cyrano de Bergerac, now pens other people’s love letters for the popular Internet Network, BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com. The ironic joke is that, once conceived and created, the actual handwriting is done by computers (what else?)

Separated from his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), Theodore is in the process of finalizing the divorce papers and so understandably feels lonely, alienated, and depressed. Things change when he meets Samantha, known as the first Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) Operating System (OS). He meets Samantha (aka OS1) by chance, but it’s the kind of Hitchcockian random encounter that bears fatal and fateful results. Samantha is an OS with a real voice and personality that make her seem almost—but not quite—human. The courtship scenes between Theodore and Samantha, taking a trip to Venice Beach, are tender and charming.

Jonze captures the way we live now, constantly checking our cel phones, reading Ipads, listening to ITunes, addicted to texting, dating through various websites on line–doing anything and everything but engaging in face-to-face interpersonal communications.

Jonze refrains from showing what Joseph Gordon Levitt did in “Don Jon,” a modern lothario obsessed with Online porn, endlessly surfing and masturbating—-until he meets a femme (coincidentally also played by Scarlett Johansson) with her own peculiarities and obsessions.

As he demonstrated last year in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master,” Phoenix is an instinctive, versatile actor, who digs deep into his roles to the point of immersing himself completely in the details of the personas he plays. Here, Phoenix renders yet another compelling performance as Jonze’s middle-aged, wounded and damaged alter-ego.

Johansson creates a complex character without possessing any body. Detached from her sexy figure (which most directors, including Woody Allen, have exploited), the actress relies on the seductiveness of her breathy voice, but she is equally convincing when she decides to engage in literature and philosophy and acquire knowledge and consciousness of her own.

The film’s only shortcoming is in the conception of the secondary roles, which are brief and underdeveloped. “Her,” like other screwball comedies, is very much a two-handle intimate tale.

As Theodore’s former wife, Rooney Mara has a small part and is mostly seen in brief flashbacks that suggest marital problems and Theodore’s inability to commit. The ever-charming Amy Adams (who can play anything) has slightly bigger role as Theodore’s old college friend and possibly paramour.

Chris Pratt as Theodore’s office manager has several good scenes, in one of which he asks him directly a tough question, what exactly he loves the most about Samantha? Theodore’s abstract answer make him realize (perhaps for the first time) that his OS is not just peculiar but utterly elusive object of desire.

The first reel runs the risks of presenting (and representing) Samantha as yet another embodiment of an adolescent male fantasy of the desirable woman. But gradually, it becomes clear that “Her” is Jonze’s most emotionally mature work to date, dealing in a subtle way with modern relationship, particularly for men like Theodore, as well as the dilemma of how to maintain a sense of self and individual identity while, while enjoying and committing to a new love affair, without repeating mistakes of the past.

End Note:

Her was just named Best Picture of the Year and Spike Jonze Best Director by the National Board of Review.

Credits

Running time: 119 Minutes.

Warner release and presentation of Annapurna Pictures production.
Produced by Megan Ellison, Spike Jonze, Vincent Landay.
Executive producers, Daniel Lupi, Natalie Farrey, Chelsea Barnard.
Directed, written by Spike Jonze.
Camera, Hoyte Van Hoytema.
Editors, Eric Zumbrunnen, Jeff Buchanan.
Music, Arcade Fire, Owen Pallett; music supervisor, Ren Klyce.
Production designer, KK Barrett.
Costume designer, Casey Storm.
Sound designer, Ren Klyce.

Cast

Joaquin Phoenix
Amy Adams
Rooney Mara
Olivia Wilde
Chris Pratt
Matt Letscher,
Portia Doubleday
Scarlett Johansson.