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Her (2013)


Before I saw the trailer for Her, I had no idea it was a Spike Jonze movie.* From the look of it, someone had tricked Joaquim Phoenix into headlining an art-house update of Electric Dreams, and I couldn't have been more disinterested--or more confused by all the buzz surrounding the film. Then Jonze's name appeared, and everything made sense.

I'd been through this dance with the writer/director on pretty much every feature he's done: despite a string of unimpressive previews, I see his movies and come away profoundly entertained and oddly shaken up. More than any mainstream filmmaker I can think of, he's got his pulse on whatever amalgam of soul and science comprises the artistic drive. The opening minutes of Adaptation perfectly distill the schizophrenia of the writing process (that most unnatural of acts where one tries to wrestle one's id into sharable, coherent submission); Where the Wild Things Are expands a 48-page children's book into a sprawling, beautiful dissertation on childhood and loss. The one exception is Being John Malkovich, which I found to be a mean-spirited sketch of a terrific idea. I should probably give it another chance.

From the get-go, Jonze establishes Her as a unique brand of picture: a bold sci-fi relationship drama, where technology features heavily in the foreground and background of the story. We meet Theodore (Phoenix) at his day-job, where he dictates personal letters that a computer program renders in the handwriting of the person who paid his employer to "author" them. He's a master at emoting for others, a service that has become crucial in a world populated by person-sized mini-orbits, information obsessives who bounce off each other instead of actually interacting. Jonze's vision of the near-future looks like Dawn of the Dead--minus the corpses, but with the same amount of milling about and mumbling (at semi-intelligent, in-ear devices).

Recently divorced from his childhood sweetheart, Catherine (Rooney Mara), Theodore mopes about and occasionally drops in on his neurotic, bickering neighbors, Charles (Matt Letscher) and Amy (Amy Adams). In flashbacks, we see that married life suited Theodore quite well: he was lively and in love, and totally in denial about the depth of his wife's deep-seated emotional problems (which largely stemmed from a rough upbringing and a lack of experience with other men). But now he's a sad-sack, the kind of guy so desperate for connectivity that he'd fall in love with his computer.

Enter Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), the new operating system Theodore has installed on his network of devices. She's the first of a new breed of artificial intelligence, whose job it is to get to know her user and assist him via the myriad multiples of information she gathers with each passing second. Yes, Samantha has at her disposal the sum of all human experience as data, but she begins life practically as a child--learning and adjusting to nuances of Theodore's personality, and working desperately to please him.

As you might imagine, things get complicated. He brings her everywhere, via a nifty portable device that looks like a business card holder with a camera lens embedded on the face. They dance in the street and take long walks marked by great conversations. They even make love, in one of the wackiest yet strangely touching scenes in recent memory. Samantha becomes everything Theodore needs her to be, which begs the question: is their bond real, or the expected result of cutting-edge social engineering?

I won't spoil the answer, except to say that Her's climax is the relationship-drama equivalent of Close Encounters of the Third Kind--and it caught me completely off guard. I shouldn't have been surprised, I guess, because the entire movie is alive with brilliant touches and sharp left turns. When Olivia Wilde popped up as a blind date for Theodore, I imagined the film taking one of two directions; Jonze led me down both paths before driving my brain (and my heart) into a ditch. The long and short of it is, whatever you think Her is going to be (horror movie, ugly love triangle, pretentious comedy), you're absolutely wrong. This film is singular in its intent and execution, and joins the pantheon of great romantic dramedies.

But as I said earlier, it's also a terrific slice of sci-fi. Like Children of Men, Jonze creates an elaborate future world that is recognizable and relatable, but which has experienced technological and social revolutions we can't even begin to imagine. He explains nothing but shows everything, immersing us in the deep end of his idea pool and rewarding all our efforts to stay afloat. From the characters' just-odd-enough-to-be-believable fashion to crowd scenes in which no one seems to notice one another, Jonze casts a vision of the future that eschews flying cars for a more realistic (unfortunately) take on where we may actually be headed.

Phoenix is the perfect tour guide. He's sufficiently weirded out by Samantha at first, but is quickly seduced by the convenience, ubiquity, and plain ol' newness of the technology. We understand his struggle to regain happiness following his divorce--especially since marriage (even a dysfunctional one) offered a cocoon against the outside world's gradually escalating callousness and disconnectedness. Stumbling back into the relationship marketplace like a love-sick Rip Van Winkle, he perhaps feels he can't open up because everyone else is so literally stuck in their own heads (in one of Her's bleaker moments, we learn how some people have managed to cope with disembodied love interests--and it ain't pretty).

As for Samantha, I now understand why Johansson garnered early awards-season buzz for her voice-work. She conveys vulnerability, sass, humor, and anger so completely that I came to "see" Samantha as an actual character--instead of holding a mental image of the actress in sweats reading into a microphone. Johansson's is a fully realized, moving performance that I'll remember fondly the next time I have to endure her taking up space in another Marvel movie.

If you're anxious to leave the house, but don't want to pay for January's standard-issue multiplex dreck, I strongly encourage you to seek out Her. Even if it somehow ends up not being your thing, Spike Jonze has delivered a great conversation-starter, perfect for dissecting over coffee or keyboards.

*Yes, even we esteemed Internet critics are out of the loop, sometimes.