In this day and age, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that people love technology. That people are in love with technology. But why? Why does any person obsess over it, waiting for days outside of any Apple store to get their hands on the latest and greatest technological gadgetry? With his latest technology-obsessed love story Her, director Spike Jonze presents the story of a man (and culture) in love with technology for one simple reason: to connect.
For what you might already know, or not know, of the indie filmmaker Jonze, his palette of past movies has always leaned towards common thematic workings of totally absurd happenings occurring in very real worlds. Whether it’s the finding of a portal leading into the head of actor John Malkovich (1999’s Being John Malkovich) or discovering the novel-come-to life (2002’s Adaptation), Jonze’s style and storytelling has always been set in creating wonderfully warm and weird movies that, through all of the odd ball absurdities, speak to the human condition at the heart of it all.
The same commonality, thematically, is seen here. But where Malkovich and Adaptation were birthed from the wacky-meta head of the great screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, Jonze offers up his first feature as both writer and director. Where the previous film’s operated in Kaufman’s highbrow and lofty headspace, Jonze’s more meek and gentle nature makes Her his most accessible, and emotionally yearning and vulnerable, films to date.
Her may end to stand as one of the most well received of Jonze’s work, as well as any to be released this year, or any in recent times. The overall “problem,” a civilization of cell-phone and computer-devoted individuals existing merely alongside rather than with each other is as cautionary a tale as it is an astute observation about where the Millennial generation is seen to be headed. Where Jonze shines in this depiction is of how he chooses to show this world. Where it might be easy enough to tell a production designer to create sets that are “dark” and “cold” so that the “flickering chance” of real “love” can more easily be contrasted against and seen, the world that has been created is one of pure lushness and impress. The cliché architectural coldness has been exchanged for a warm, impeccably designed world, where smooth corners and tailored pastel garb populates a high-rise infested city that still feels homey. With flourishes in its camerawork, the overall look and design in which its characters participate in is one of applaudable beauty.
The ambition that Jonze sets out to conquer, in writing, directing, and acting, is fully exacted in this philosophically-stirring yet, sure to be commercial/critical hit.
Though, unfortunately, not all of the characters get to see this mesmerizingly attractive world. Not in the literal sense, anyway. For one character, “Samantha” (Scarlett Johansson), the love interest in the film, is merely an Operating System. This poses a self-made problem for one lonesome soul, a simple man who stumbles into falling in love with the code of 1’s and 0’s. The man in question is Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix). Recently divorced from real life Catherine (Rooney Mara), Theodore spends his days as a hand written letter dictator (at the imaginary Beautiful Handwritten Letters), creating falsely authentic sentiments for real people. When Theodore learns of new OS’s (as the operating systems are so casually referred to) that help organize your life, he decides to create one, selecting a “female” voice as a starting place. The ending place, however, results with him developing a real connection with Samantha, going so far as to fall in love with the also devoted and serving OS.
The magic in the film ultimately hangs on the believability and truthfulness felt for the characters and above premise. For all of the entertaining bells and whistles the “Spike Jonze love story” has, the real reason why this movie is simply a winner comes down to how well Theodore and the pocket-sized camera Samantha’s relationship is captured onscreen. Phoenix, however off-putting his off-screen persona you find to be, still proves to be one of this generation’s greatest actors. The simple (read: amazing) task of acting in a love story where nearly 90% (89.8%, for all you statisticians) of the film’s effectiveness relies on the performances of constantly-rolling close-ups in the most emotionally compelling and driving scenes in the film, is one of the most fascinating acting endeavors seen this year. Phoenix steps into more popular leading man shoes, leaving behind both his drugged out turn “as himself” in 2010’s negatively received I’m Still Here as well as the mentally-manic drinker Freddy Quell in last year’s The Master, as a more relatable looking for love character, and to great effect.
In a further showing of acting hoop-leaping, the “performance” of Samantha herself by Johansson is already leaving audiences in a tizzy. As a replacement for the on-set voice of Samantha (Samantha Morton), who read/acted off-screen to Phoenix in the movie, Johansson stepped in to record over her voice in post-production, as a change in direction was decided by Jonze when editing the film. With a role, and film, that hangs so much on just the voice of the actress, arguably needing to act in even greater specificity to properly convey the sentiments in a solely auditory way, Johansson steps up to the plate big. When she vocally exhales at one point in one of her and Theodore’s conversations, he asks why she did it. She responds that she thought it was just a cultural communicative quirk and way in which to respond to people, an insightful perception on Jonze’s part. With her very feminine, very sexy, very warm rasp of a voice, Johansson creates a Samantha that we want to know, and listen to, and when her own character begins to evolve and transform in new and unexpected ways, we want to keep being there, keep loving, keep connecting with her, even when we ultimately can’t.
The ambition that Jonze sets out to conquer, in writing, directing, and acting is fully exacted in this philosophically-stirring yet, sure to be commercial/critical hit. After the screening, it had me jumping right into the conversation of our culture’s obsession with technology, what “love” even is, and who “people” even are. Her is a modern day masterpiece, romantic, comedic, and dramatic all at once, and all told at the most perfectly receptive and telling of times. At the very least, watching this film with a friend will make for a shared, communal experience, that at the very end, you might both share an exhale, and signify the uniqueness and specialness of how we still connect.