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Dustin Putman

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Her  (2013)
3 Stars
Directed by Spike Jonze.
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Chris Pratt, Portia Doubleday, Laura Kai Chen, Matt Letscher, Sam Jaeger, Luka Jones; voice of Scarlett Johansson.
2013 – 120 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for language, sexual content and brief graphic nudity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 19, 2013.
An auteur in every sense who can always be relied upon to bring a special, sensitive, singular vision to the movies he makes, Spike Jonze has established himself over the last decade and a half as a writer-director worth getting excited over. With 1999's "Being John Malkovich," 2002's "Adaptation," and 2009's "Where the Wild Things Are," Jonze has helmed nothing but great—and sometimes even more than that—films. There is often a several-year gap in between projects, but, like those of Quentin Tarantino, they are, bar none, worth the wait. A genre-busting romantic drama of both generous whimsy and heart-crumbling beauty, "Her" isn't quite like any other film out there (its closest cousin might be 2002's "Simone," and that's pushing it). Traversing themes as varied as the innate drive to make an impact on the world, the intangible minutiae that lead to the disintegration of a relationship, and the desire to find a deeper connection in an impersonal, technology-driven world, Jonze's fourth full-length feature is narratively unrelated to his previous three, but connected nonetheless by a vital spark of related existential ideas and sensibilities.

In a vision of the near-future not too different from our present, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a Los Angeles-based writer who makes his living penning personal letters from one stranger to another. Recently divorced and still trying to figure out what happened between himself and his ex-wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), Theodore's loneliness is the catalyst for his decision to purchase an OS1—that is, an artificially intelligent operating system. The A.I. he chooses is Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), a brand-new sentient being both empowered and curious about her sudden existence—even if it is strictly within a computer. No one gets Theodore the way Samantha does, and the two of them hit it off, becoming close companions who, unlikely as it may seem on the outside, are edging closer toward falling in love. In a world where operating systems are an increasingly accepted form of technology, Theodore knows that there couldn't possibly be a healthy future for a man whose romantic relationship is with someone who isn't real. The conundrum, then, is that he is starting to have trouble imagining a life without her.

"Her" tells one of 2013's most affecting, intimate love stories—a feat made additionally stunning because Theodore's romantic partner is a disembodied voice who lives nowhere but inside a computerized operating system. Scarlett Johansson (2013's "Don Jon") has been showered with acclaim for her role here precisely because of how much she is able to come alive without once stepping foot in front of the camera. It is a remarkable performance regardless, one that eclipses typical vocal acting in the way that she gives a soul to a character who neither exists in the real world nor the fictional one on the screen. More tricky and complicated than playing an animated character, who still exists in a drawn or computer-rendered physical form in the finished product, Johansson's work is at once sweet, flirtatious, sensual, joyous, curious, lovable and poignant. The easy, eventually impassioned rapport between Samantha and Theodore is instantaneous the moment they begin to speak to one another. Becoming best friends and then more, their companionship turns into a meaningful comfort, allowing Theodore to move on from a marriage that didn't work out. At a certain point, though, he knows they do not have a future together—at least, not one that is honest and true. In paying for the OS1 service, he is using her for his own sort of wish fulfillment. In turn, the OS1 is programmed to cater to human desires.

Joaquin Phoenix (2012's "The Master") is exceptionally cast as Theodore. It is through him that the story is told, and Phoenix does a breathtaking job of realizing his role with all of the yearning and tenderness it calls for. It is a stretch to believe that Theodore's letter-writing position would give him the money to be able to afford what looks to be a penthouse apartment at the Beverly Wilshire Tower, but since this is a utopian snapshot of L.A. in the decades ahead it is easier to swallow. The viewer comes to care about Theodore, getting involved in his day-to-day life and routine and the heartaches that have led him to his current forlorn state. In supporting turns that Jonze ensures have been written with efficiency and specificity no matter their screen time, Amy Adams (2013's "Man of Steel") is an understated natural as Amy, a longtime friend of Theodore's who doesn't bat an eye at the news that he has an OS1—as it turns out, she does, too—and Portia Doubleday (2013's "Carrie") is unforgettably moving in the brief, silent role of Surrogate Date Isabella, a vulnerable human stand-in for Samantha heartbroken by Theodore's rejection. Chris Pratt (2012's "Zero Dark Thirty"), as Theodore's co-worker buddy, Paul; Rooney Mara (2013's "Side Effects"), as ex-wife Catherine, and Olivia Wilde (2013's "Drinking Buddies"), as a disappointing blind date who initially leaves Theodore questioning whether or not there is someone else out there for him, round out the cast.

"The past is just a story we tell ourselves," Samantha tells Theodore in "Her." As a computer, she doesn't have a tangible past at all, but her point is well-taken. In lieu of dwelling on what has happened that cannot be changed, Theodore will only be able to find happiness by looking forward at the possibilities ahead of him. His personal trajectory is inevitable in certain respects, but surprising in others, much like the wondrous universe in which he's living. Photographed with a lustrous, fluid sheen by Hoyte Van Hoytema (2010's "The Fighter"), a positive, picturesque depiction of a clean, advanced future that refreshingly isn't in shambles, "Her" matches its comely visuals to a romantic fable of aching, poetic grace.
© 2013 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman