Directed by: Spike Jonze || Produced by: Megan Ellison, Spike Jonze, Vincent Landay
Screenplay by: Spike Jonze || Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Matt Letscher
Music by: Arcade Fire || Cinematography: Hoyte van Hoytema || Editing by: Eric Zumbrunnen, Jeff Buchanan || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 125 minutes
As a guy who loves his science-fiction and action movies, I often adhere to stereotypical male viewing interests to the extent that I have relatively little patience for romantic films, be they either comedy or drama hybrids. However, my following of this male stereotype occurs not because I have an inherent distaste for films of the romantic persuasion, but rather because, like most other genres, most romantic movies are quite bad. I respect a solid cinematic analysis of the state of human relationships as long as it is well constructed and has something interesting to say. Case in point, I fell head over heals in love with the heartfelt, passionate story in David O. Russell’s 2012 film, Silver Linings Playbook. Films like that showcase the brilliant power cinema has to illustrate and comment on the nature of human romance, and the universal search for companionship we all seek. As much as any other type of movie, romantic narratives need to be powered by strong writing that focuses on interesting, relatable characters, which are in turn realized with dept direction and attention to visual detail.
Thankfully, another romantic film this year has done just that. Spike Jonze’s Her, a bizarre, out-of-left-field love story about a man who falls in love with an artificially intelligent operating system (OS), succeeds in building a story that focuses on the humanity of its characters and sports a witty, shrewdly intelligent personality that isn’t afraid to wow you in the weirdest of ways.
If you know anything about the premise of Her, you’ll know that part of its unique persona lies in its creative setup. It follows a stereotypical “down-on-his-luck” protagonist who then becomes anything but cliched when he falls in love with an advanced artificial intelligence personality that can mimic (or possibly genuinely process) human emotions. This bizarre scenario takes place in a fittingly off-beat setting, which is the Los Angeles of a not-too-distant-future. Her’s slightly sci-fi setting allows its creative premise to flourish and grow in ways that would be impossible to take seriously in a more “normal” modern day environment.
The amazing thing about Her’s diegesis is that it all feels so effortlessly believable. Its focus is on the human (and OS) characters, rather than the subtle nuances of this futuristic metropolis, but the partial sci-fi elements at play feed into this engrossing concept of organic-technological romance. In most films, the clean, sterilized look of Jonze’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)-esque setting would feel uncomfortably inhuman and unnatural, but here, the soft, comfy visuals compliment the intriguing what-if(?) romantic scenario.
As for the central players, they are impressive. Joaquin Phoenix gives what may be a career-best performance to date as the lonely, soulful protagonist who’s romantically wounded yet universally relatable. He feels real, interesting, and most importantly of all, worth investing in from beginning to end. His character reacts to his social environment in realistic, organic ways that give weight to the love story at hand. As for the other side of the relationship coin, Scarlett Johansson is the real surprise as the equally deep and passionate Samantha, the self-named OS with whom Phoenix falls in love. Probably the most ironic thing about Her is that it sees Johansson give her best performance of her career, and yet her sexy, blonde bod is nowhere to be seen. Samantha’s character is realized only through voice performance and no physical representation is ever shown. Johansson is so good in this I didn’t even realize it was her voice until I looked up the credits after the movie!
What all this boils down to is how irresistible the romance feels because its creative, science-fiction concepts feel plausible. Everything feels believable, and as a result the central romance is able to provide intriguing commentary on the modern state of human relationships.
Her has too much intelligence and personality to pass up. Its ability to make its bizarre premise feel so plausible is reason enough to see the film, yet its the committed performances by Phoenix and Johansson and Jonze’s brilliant direction that make you remember it in the end. I think it speaks to the craft of this screenplay that it gets you emotional, it gets you riled up in multiple ways watching the dynamic between its central characters play out. It’s hard to think of a weirder movie that’s come out in 2013, yet it’s also difficult to recall a film from this year that’s better.
So in short, if you’re similar to the average male moviegoer who doesn’t care much for most lovey-dovey movies because their premises don’t seem too intriguing, or that most aren’t objectively worth your time, Spike Jonze’s Her is an excellent film for you to make an exception. This strange yet heartfelt romance doesn’t reinvent the romantic genre-wheel, but it comes darned near close. Near genre-reinvention should be good enough for anyone.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Jonze’s sharp, intelligent script constructs a premise and setting that are engrossing to no end, scratching your curiosity in the most fun, humorous, and humanistic ways possible. His expert direction utilizes Hoyte van Hoytema’s unique cinematography to endow his film’s world with an interesting personality and a visual style reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Phoenix and Johansson give career-best performances, and the latter performance is voice-only!
—> Her comes HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
? I can’t wait to play Phoenix’s videogame with the smartass alien child (voiced by Jonze himself). Now that’s what I call interactive entertainment.