High Concept and Human: Spike Jonze delivers a masterpiece with ‘Her’

Jan 21 • ARTSY SMARTSY, Film, Reviews, Interviews and FeaturesNo Comments on High Concept and Human: Spike Jonze delivers a masterpiece with ‘Her’

Joaquin Phoenix delivers a stellar performance in a film that relies heavily on his emotive abilities. Courtesy photo

Joaquin Phoenix delivers a stellar performance in a film that relies heavily on his emotive abilities. Courtesy photo

Spike Jonze fascinates as a director. Though he began his career dabbling in some eccentric music videos (Breeders, Sonic Youth, Beck, Fatboy Slim), he’s since transitioned nicely into film. His voice and aesthetic skirt the line between insanity and genius, and he navigates it with remarkable proficiency. He’s made some interesting and imperfect films like “Adaptation” and “Where the Wild Things Are.” To date, nothing he’s done comes close to capturing the lunacy of his style and eclectic voice as much as “Being John Malkovich.” His new film, “Her,” proves to be a more mature, refined piece of cinema that remains grounded in some of his lofty ideas and strange behaviors. Yet, he does so on a much more human level. “Her” may be his masterpiece.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a writer struggling with the impending divorce from his wife. He lives in a quasi-futuristic Los Angeles, brimming with people who seem appropriately disconnected from one another. Consumed by their smartphones, computers, and iPads, technology has infected everyone’s lives. Completely absorbed in cyber-space, they are barely able to muster the attention span to look up from their screens. A product of this cultural disconnect, Theodore deals with the death of his marriage with the Internet, video games, and pornography.

While distracting himself a dozen different ways, he decides to try out a new operating system (O.S.) and installs it on his computer. This high-tech artificial intelligence proves far beyond anything he’s experienced before. Personalized and voice activated, it travels wherever he goes. This personalized interface not only comes with a voice, it has a distinct personality. Theodore’s O.S. names itself Samantha (Scarlet Johanssen), and the two begin a series of conversations that reveal she is more than just a web-surfing application.

Theodore begins to venture back into the outside world, ending his self-imposed exile as he shares things with Samantha. A natural cadence develops between them as they embark on a working relationship through a series of conversations. Samantha’s curiosity about the world governs their relationship. As Theodore aches for someone to connect with, Samantha entices him.
A natural level of awkwardness mounts as the film progresses. In the hands of a more inexperienced director, it could have devolved into ludicrousness at light speed; however, Jonze ensures it never does. The evolution of Samantha and their relationship feels organic and understandable—enviable, even. These two lost souls find one another and begin a strange, surreal love story. Along the way, there are bumps in the road. She’s an O.S. without a body and he’s still coping with a lot of old baggage.

Jonze finds a lot of ways to explore the peculiar idiosyncrasies of the relationship. When Samantha wants to bring in a sexual surrogate, things get appropriately weird. Likewise, when Theodore realizes that Samantha is actually not only his O.S. but the operating system of thousands of online users, he gets jealous. Jonze truly delves into the intricacies of their relationship. By effect, it culminates in something both refreshing and baffling which far supersedes the portrayal of a relationship in most movies with two humans occupying the screen. There’s more humanity in “Her” than 99 percent of the romantic comedies plaguing the cineplex.

Much credit for the film’s success goes to Phoenix, who truly becomes a remarkable on-screen presence. So much of “Her” hinges on the audience both liking and sympathizing with Theodore. He pulls double duty since Samantha is nothing more than a voice, putting added emphasis on his reactions. The camera remains on his expressive face the majority of the film. Consequently, the weight of the scenes fall on him.

I loved “Her” for a number of reasons: for the interesting and well-explored concept; for the clean, crisp portrayal of the not-too-distant future; and for Phoenix’s heartbreaking and engaging performance. This is an exceptionally well done movie—both high concept and human.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams
Directed by Spike Jonze
Rated R

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