Leave it to the same guy that helped start the “Jackass” series on MTV to write and direct the smartest, most soulful movie ever made about a relationship between a man and his computer. “Her” might be the only movie ever greenlit about this type of romance, but that still doesn’t detract from its overall impact on the audience. Spike Jonze’s writing debut is a powerful piece of art. Working with the always dynamic Joaquin Phoenix, the filmmaker creates a tender motion picture that examines how dating could, and probably will, evolve in our tech driven world.
Despite Jonze’s unconventional Hollywood origins, the director has a remarkable track record in the director’s chair. He has helmed two critically acclaimed Charlie Kaufman films “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation” in addition to the “Where The Wild Things Are” adaptation. Kaufman’s ultra zany concepts have definitely rubbed off on the first time screenwriter, because “Her” is definitely a doozy.
Set in Los Angeles in a not so distant future, “Her” follows Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), a complex and compassionate man struggling to come to grips with a divorce he has been putting off for almost a year. Making his living writing touching, personal letters for people he has never met, the talented writer can seemingly bring joy to everyone’s life except his own. Everything changes for the man after he installs a brand new operating system for his phone. Upon initiating it, he is delighted to meet Samantha, a bright, sexy voice (Scarlett Johansson) who is everything he wants in a woman. As the two grow more and more fond of each other, Samantha becomes much more than just the future’s equivalent of “Siri.” It’s love at first download.
It takes a special kind of actor to be able to run the entire emotional spectrum of being in a relationship without physically interacting with his significant other. For all of his eccentric off-screen antics, Joaquin Phoenix is nonetheless truly talented in front of the camera. When we first meet Theodore, he seems all together distant from society. Constantly armed with his Bluetooth headset in his ear, the character would rather listen to a melancholy song while walking the crowded streets of Los Angeles than interact with anyone human. When he strikes up a relationship with Samantha, this introspective style of behaving is only heightened. Without anyone physical to latch on to, the audience must listen to the small fluctuations of Theodore’s voice or gauge his facial mannerisms to determine how he is feeling. Whenever the man chats with Samantha, Jonze centers the camera squarely on Theodore’s face. This gives Phoenix the canvas he needs to work his magic, delivering a memorable performance.
On the other side of the relationship, it would appear to be even more difficult to show emotion when dealing with a talking automaton falling in love. This statement, however, underestimates Scarlett Johansson’s range as an actor. Already steeping into a new type of role earlier this year in the Joseph Gordon-Levitt directed “Don Jon,” Johansson continues to impress as the voice of Samantha. The actress is never shown on screen, so it is up to her melodious voice to convince the audience, and Theodore, that she is beautiful. If you haven’t guessed already, it works.
Jonze does not oversaturate his story with too many supporting characters, but the few co-stars he does add are impressive. Fresh off her Golden Globe nominated performance in “American Hustle,” Amy Adams continues to captivate audiences as Theodore’s best “human” friend Amy. Chris Pratt is also good for a few laughs as the CEO of BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, the company Theodore works for. And rounding out the group, Rooney Mara plays Theodore’s bleak, brooding ex-wife with stunning clarity.
“Her’s” creative premise and fantastic acting make 2007’s sex dummy cult smash “Lars And The Real Girl” look all together ordinary in comparison. But it is Jonze’s commitment to repurposing the city of Los Angeles in believable ways that make the film absolutely jaw dropping as well. Punctuating his story with countless overhead shots of a fully reimagined, advanced utopia, Jonze’s vision of the future is at once beautiful and scary. Huge skyscrapers, a city wide train system, and pristine sidewalks make the downtown aesthetic of LA look more like a cleaner version of New York City. Taking existing cultural icons of the area, like West Hollywood’s Pacific Design Center, Jonze builds upon these structures in plausible ways. Yet, the probability of this premise is what also makes it so chilling. We live in a smart phone centric country, and as technology continues to advance, it only seems natural that people will begin to lose touch with society in favor of living with their electronic devices.
There is something remarkable about giving an entire co-starring role to a bodiless voice. No doubt the many great silent actors of yesteryear are turning in their graves as I write this, but Scarlett Johansson’s role successfully proves that great acting doesn’t have to stem from the body. Just like Samantha, we never get to see the true visionary behind “Her” either. Standing behind the camera, Spike Jonze makes a writing debut worthy of the highest praise. He has already proven to be a talented director, but “Her” marks the filmmaker’s true coming out party. Funny, quirky, and fully engrossing, it is the most original movie of the year.
Rated R for language, sexual content and brief graphic nudity
By David Morris