Shuffling through melancholy songs and blissful moments of seemingly true love, director and writer Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich” and “Where the Wild Things Are”) paints a beautiful and thought provoking story of happiness, heartbreak and all the little memories in between, in his most recent film, “Her.”
Unable to prioritize between video games and internet porn, a lonely writer named Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix, “Walk the Line”) finds comfort and happiness in an unlikely, yet thriving relationship with Samantha (Scarlett Johansson, “Lost in Translation”) — his newly purchased operating system, designed to meet his every need.
In this sci-fi romance — his first solo written project — Jonze successfully weaves his own unique voice with a dynamic style influenced by his previous collaborations with Charlie Kaufman (“Adaptation”). His superb understanding of the balance between grief and powerful uplifts is tactfully conveyed through the evolution of genuine emotions in his characters.
Many other filmmakers, perhaps too caught up in people’s addiction to technology today, may have easily botched a story of a man falling in love with an artificial intelligent being. This is where Jonze triumphs. Rather than passing judgments on the principles, he puts their relationship and all its experiences under a microscope to examine its humanity.
The story takes place in a not-too-distant future, where there is a visible distance between people. In a time when looking someone up on the internet before a date is considered to be sweet and romantic, Theodore, with a more traditional etiquette of romance, and in the process of a divorce, seems spiritless and lacking hope — just surviving.
He purchases a new operating system, the OS1. Fully intuitive, the OS1, self-named Samantha, has a consciousness. Spirited and curious about life and the living, Samantha reignites a flame in Theodore, taking him beyond the limited perspective of an un-artificial mind.
To portray such animated and evocative roles, the caliber of actors and their talent needed to be tremendous — and they were.
Phoenix climbs a higher mountain with each consecutive movie in his career. His depiction of Theodore was not only quite different from his recent films, but also his best. Given that most of his screen-time is spent talking to a disembodied voice through his earpiece, Phoenix remarkably delivers an almost one-man-show at times, akin to Sam Rockwell with Kevin Spacey in Duncan Jones’s “Moon.”
They sing, run and explore their world together, as the smart phone device through which Samantha sees is nicely tucked into his safety-pinned chest pocket — just enough for the camera lens to peak out. His interactions with the bodiless being are authentic and captivating. Through “Her” alone, Phoenix proves that there isn’t much he cannot accomplish in the realm of acting.
Johansson’s portrayal of this Siri-esque character is fun, sexy and sincere. While still in production of Tennessee William’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” on Broadway, she was approached by Jonze after a last minute decision to recast the part — initially played by the British actress, Samantha Morton.
Since Morton had originally worked on the dialog with Phoenix, Johansson — without ever appearing on screen or the set — had to play off of what he had already done, making her breathtaking performance exceptional on multiple levels.
Some of the other notable performances were also represented by a few familiar faces.
There is no role too small for the talented Amy Adams (“American Hustle”). She makes her presence likable, and even memorable in the little screen-time she has as Theodore’s friend, Amy, who has a side story of her own with another OS. Rooney Mara (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) and Olivia Wilde (“Tron”) also deliver compelling roles as Theodore’s ex-wife and the blind date, respectively.
One actor who is appearing more and more on the silver screen, much to the audience’s delight, is Chris Pratt (“Parks and Recreation”). He is making a name for himself as the next big comedic relief (stated in no way to take anything away from his talent). He is charismatic, well-versed in his craft and capable of handling dramatic conventions. His role in “Her,” was brief, but it served the desired purpose of his character — a “human” relief.
The harmony between Jonze’s directing and the colorful cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema (“The Fighter”) was smooth, serene and simply evoked a sense of awe. The juxtaposition of bright colors to portray the vibrant spirit of the characters against the grey and mundane of the Los Angeles megapolis — representing the desolation of reality, was just one of the many strokes of genius that made this film a delight to watch.
The duo also took a leap of faith by going to black on screen at times when things were simply left up to the audience’s imagination — and it worked; just as it did to use elevator rides to depict the rise and fall of life and love in the film.
With everything from dead-cat fetishes to a more socially acceptable insanity called love, Jonze brings to life the best characters of his career, artificial or not. Through brilliant writing and a gifted cast, “Her” is not only one of this year’s best films, but also the best work of its collaborators to date.