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HER – Review

February 17, 2014

Film + Entertainment | by Francesco Cerniglia


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If you take a moment to look at Spike Jonze’s peculiar career as a filmmaker (let’s not forget he’s also an understated actor with often small but significant turns like in David O. Russell’s Three Kings and most recently his cameos in Bennett Miller’s Moneyball and Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street) one thing is immediately clear: this is a man with a unique voice, an unconventional view of the world and some really wacky but irresistibly funny ideas laced with poetic and philosophical undertones which leave you with food for thought aplenty. Yet, this is the first time he works off a script he wrote all by himself and it’s impossible not to see the extremely personal and intimate value of this story. Her is undoubtedly Jonze’s most genuine and soulful film: a sci-fi rom-com of sorts that despite fleeing from Hollywood’s mainstream narratives, is probably his most accessible work to date.

Set in Los Angeles, in an undefined but evidently not so far future, this is the story of Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), a writer of personal and emotional letters to other people: think the next step after greeting cards in human laziness and lackluster emotion. He’s a sad, lonely man in a sad, lonely world. Recently out of a separation from his wife, played mostly in flashbacks by Rooney Mara, but still postponing the divorce papers signing, Theodore spends his days between work, lonely videogame playing and sexy online chat perusing plus the occasional hang out with college friend Amy (Amy Adams) and her neat picky husband Charles (Matt Letscher). But this monotonously soul-crashing routine is interrupted when Theodore decides to purchase a brand new artificial intelligence called OS (as in operating system) whose slick design is an inevitable nod to Apple products. OS is supposed to be an advanced operating system, an intuitive and unique entity that’s there not just to serve as an organizer of people’s lives.

Theodore’s OS is called Samantha and has the warm and sexy voice of Scarlet Johansson who delivers an extremely vivid and nuanced performance despite never appearing on screen. Samantha is lovely, funny and sophisticated and it doesn’t take long for Theodore to actually bond with her beyond her mere computer duties. One night the bonding experience crosses the line as they get caught up in virtual sex and from then on it’s a downfall as man and machine fall in love with each other. However, the road bumps they hit are not just due to the odd and transcendent nature of their relationship. Though stemming from Samantha’s evolution as an artificial intelligence, these issues have a stronger human nature than you’d think of. “One of the most challenging aspects of a relationship is being truly honest and intimate and allowing the person you love to be the same,” Spike Jonze insightfully says. “We’re changing and growing all the time, so the question is, how do you allow them the freedom to be who they are, moment to moment, day to day and year to year? Who are they going to become, and can you still love them?”

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This is most definitely the core theme explored by Jonze’s remarkable film that takes you on an intimate and poignant journey of self-discovery since like Theodore we all inevitably go through the disorientation of not knowing what we really want from a relationship, let alone from life. Jonze perfectly captures our state of hopeless loneliness, numbed by the oppressive technological shell we’re trapped in every day and our yearning for human contact despite our inability to connect. Joaquin Phoenix gives another career-defining performance, aided by a brilliant supporting cast, and it’s a shame that this time around his work has been ignored by the several awards ceremonies (with exception of the Golden Globes) due to its low key, quiet and understated nature. He wears a mask of melancholia that creeps up on you from the opening close up to the evocative final image. It’s hard to remain indifferent to this character’s tale of stirring emotional restlessness.

The most outstanding quality of Her is its complex simplicity and the ability to make you identify with a world that practically already exists, despite the story being set in this undefined future. Maybe we’re not plugged in with our personal artificial intelligence yet but just like the people in the film, we wander our cities talking to ourselves with an earpiece and a phone in our hand, now a quasi natural extension of our limbs, looking like crazies, going our way, unaware of the world around us. It doesn’t take expensive CGI for Jonze to create this world. He simply relies on a crafty and original use of (Oscar nominated) production design, costumes and make up with a retro 70s vintage vibe and he immerses us in a Los Angeles with a denser concentration of skyscrapers, a fully functioning metro (my dream during my LA years) and yet the usual to-die-for sunsets and sunrises.

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A special mention goes to Hoyte Van Hoytema for his stunningly gorgeous cinematography work, bringing Jonze’s vision to the screen effortlessly on both interiors and exteriors, making Los Angeles look as pretty and lonely as it can be. And how could I forget the outstanding Arcade Fire providing the electronic-based score peppered with some classical spurs and Karen O from Yeah Yeah Yeahs and her Moon Song written with Jonze himself? Both music and song are nominated for an Academy Award and so are the film and Jonze for both directing and writing. I dare to say it: this is Spike Jonze’s masterpiece and it needs to be experienced on the silver screen. Get your date on and lose yourselves in pure cinematic genius.

Her is out in UK cinemas.

Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor