Tuesday, January 14, 2014


Grade: 97/A

On paper, Spike Jonze’s Her sounds like another genre/mind-bender in the style of his Charlie Kaufman collaborations Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely ghostwriter of personal letters, is in the middle of a divorce with his childhood sweetheart (Rooney Mara). He purchases a hyper-intelligent operating system that adapts and behaves like a human being, which names itself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). Charmed by her open acceptance and fascination by the world, he bonds and falls in love with her. It has the potential for a fascinating commentary on the evolving nature of technology, like a more advanced version of what Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess did earlier this year. Instead, it’s the set-up for an allegory about love, relationships, and heartbreak, the most personal and emotionally bracing work of Jonze’s career.

Not that Her doesn’t have a clear perspective on the era: Jonze and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema frame Phoenix in sharp focus close-ups while everything around him goes soft. Theodore mentions that his time is divided between videogames and internet porn, which his quasi-platonic friend Amy (a sweetly funny Amy Adams) notes isn’t actually a joke. The film’s gorgeous visual style, then, serves to isolate Theodore in a bubble. It’s a sleek, comfortable bubble (set in Los Angeles but shot partially in Shanghai to look more futuristic) filled with gadgets to make his life easier, but in a sense that makes it easier to be lonely (and that’s not even taking into account his job writing personal love letters for other people). Technology is great, but it’s also isolating.

Which is why a connection, any connection, makes a difference. One might think it would be counterintuitive to separate Scarlett Johansson’s voice from her body, and yet she does the finest work of her career as Samantha. It’s a tricky role, one that could easily have fallen into familiar territory had it been too cold (Jonze replaced the originally cast Samantha Morton with Johansson). But Johansson’s smoky timbre has a liveliness and warmth to it that fits Samantha’s openness to the world around her, as well as a sense of desire that’s required to believe in the film’s conceit.

Phoenix, who has established himself as the most interesting actor working today, is every bit as inward and soft-spoken as The Master’s Freddie Quell was raw and erratic.  He’s sensitive, sweet, and more than a little pathetic, someone who’s clearly uncomfortable in his own skin and around other people. His wrecked relationship with Mara’s character plays mostly in flashbacks, with one brief reunion for their divorce where the eternally moody actress accuses him of wanting her to be a ray of sunshine, and that the Samantha situation keeps him from having to actually deal with real people and problems.

Perhaps that is how it starts, and it’s in keeping with the protagonists of Jonze’s previous films: Malkovich’s puppeteer Craig Schwartz, who can’t get people to listen to him unless he’s Malkovich; Adaptation’s Charlie Kaufman, whose ideas about his artistic integrity and difficulty with people contrast with his more comfortable twin Donald; and Where the Wild Things Are’s Max, who retreats to a dream world to avoid real life problems. Theodore, meanwhile, is more comfortable with other people’s words and relationships than with his own.

He might be the ultimate surrogate for Jonze, whose breakthrough films were visually breathtaking and imaginative, but which nonetheless saw him translating Kaufman’s brilliant ideas to screen. It would take seven long years of trial-and-error for Jonze to get a more personal project off the ground, and it wasn’t nearly as universally accepted. Meanwhile, Jonze’s own marriage to Sofia Coppola (whose Lost in Translation has more than a little in common with Her) imploded. It’s easy to see Jonze relating to a fortysomething more comfortable retreating than engaging with the world, finding a more distanced, more comfortable relationship.

But as always, one can only have an idealized world for so long. Following a gorgeous, deeply felt scene of Theodore and Samantha’s “first time” together, there comes awkwardness (hilariously visualized by an exaggerated distance between Phoenix and his computer), deepening intimacy, and complications. Theodore’s relationship with Samantha could just as easily be a new, long-distance relationship (albeit with a higher intelligence). In both cases, it’s a situation where both parties are initially completely accepting of limitations and each other’s quirks, but the evolution of the relationship is burdened with frustrations and a near-guarantee for growing intimacy with other people.

All throughout, Jonze handles it with disarming sincerity and openheartedness, which is as much a part of the Jonze touch as his visual inventiveness. What helped filter Kaufman’s conceptual audaciousness and equally emotional (but much more melancholy) sensibility has come bursting through the dam in Jonze’s past two movies, the ones that I’ll most cherish in the years to come. Her is the grown-up companion to Where the Wild Things Are, another warm and understanding embrace of lonely hearts. It’s truly something special, somehow both the most personal love story of the year and the most universal.

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