They say timing is everything. Today is January 21st, and today (just about six hours ago) I saw the Spike Jonze film called Her. I exited the theater, and hopped into my car. Just then, as my car radio came on – I found that the NPR outlet, WUSF (89.7 FM), here in Sarasota, was airing the Fresh Air show, hosted by Terry Gross – which was an interview with actor Joaquin Phoenix.
The actor was describing what it was like, as an 8-year-old child actor to appear in a movie and be on a movie set. He mentioned the excitement, the energy, the thrill of being on a set surrounded by so many different people all so enthusiastic about what they were doing.
His words: “I remember feeling like I was buzzing, like my whole body was vibrating, because it was just so exciting to experience this thing that wasn’t real but at moments felt like it was real,” he says. “It’s basically the feeling that I’ve been chasing ever since.”
Now this was just a few short moments after I had left theater, and as I was heading for the car, my mind was already in a compositional mode as the beginnings of this review started to take form. How apt to hear Joaquin speaking about unreality after I had just watched him for 126 minutes in a movie about a lonely man who finds love when he begins a relationship with the operating system on his phone.
While the title of the film is Her, an alternative might by The Rise and Fall of Theodore Twombley. Theodore is a professional letter writer, and from the looks of his apartment, he’s doing very well in his field. He’s in the throes of a difficult divorce from his wife Catherine, played by Rooney Mara.
When he’s not moping about he plays video games. He’s not a particularly social fellow so he’s just perfect for the latest innovation in artificial intelligence – an operating system that’s designed to meet his needs.
This isn’t anything like Siri on the iPhones. This is a far better system. A voice that can laugh, one that carries enthusiasm, emotion, as well as empathy. A voice that cares for you, attends to what you need and want, in short – a system that the grows with you.
It will surprise no one that Joaquin’s Theodore falls in love with the OS voiced by Scarlett Johansson. It will also surprise no one that this is ultimately a sad film.
On the surface this film is about a New-Age romance, set sometime in the unspecified near future. You could call the film a comedy, a romance, a drama, and a science-fiction film. The reality is that Her is not just one of these choices – rather, it is all of the above.
Jonze brings his multi-talented skill into play and in clear focus with Her. He directed, he’s the writer, and he even voiced one of the characters in a simulated computer game that entertained Theodore. This is a film that makes you think about topics like exclusivity, jealousy, desire, obsessive possession, confidence, and loneliness.
A generation ago, if we passed people who were alone in the street, and we heard them talking, we’d think something might be amiss. These days, we think of smart phones with Bluetooth connected headsets and microphones or mini-lapel mikes. Twenty years from now it will be fully wireless, with the phone in your shirt pocket and a mini-speaker/mike ear piece. Plus, walking in the street, or anywhere and apparently talking to no one who is visible, will seem completely normal.
But is Jonze pitching us an array of technological wonders with capabilities we currently don’t have or have even considered. Or he is telling us about how technology will isolate us even further than we already are. Is he talking about the City of Dreams being a place where everyone is lost in a crowd, where dreams and hearts are broken daily, and a place where marriages and other relationships last for months instead of lifetimes.
While you contemplate that – let’s talk about the film’s style. The palette is soft and muted, the music is incredibly personal, and this is a film where the close-up is king. Whatever charms you may think that Joaquin Phoenix has – he’s on-screen in virtually every scene, and we get close-ups as the preferred directorial choice rather than any thing else. Don’t forget that we are talking a film of 126 minutes. Yet I can’t disparage Phoenix in any way. His range of facial expressions go from blessedly happy, ecstatic, to furrowed-brow troubled, and stressed. Actually he’s just marvelous, especially so when you consider that most of his reactive expressions come while he is physically alone.
There are a number of women in major supporting roles. Besides Rooney Mara, there’s also Amy Adams, and Olivia Wilde. All three of them add some special moments which effectively break up the monotony of Joaquin talking to his OS.
I hesitate to state that I enjoyed the film. But I cannot deny that this movie is immersive, Or an inward-facing story. Which is the natural outcome when you have a single main character. While Johansson’s voice is heard at great length – we can’t see her. What we do see , at least through the heart of the film, is the ecstatic look on the face of Theodore.
In summary, I will say that Her is a near perfect example of what can be done when a director and an actor are on the same page. Then again, saying they are on the same page is bit mild. How about this – the director and the actor equals two minds and one on-screen body which perfectly reflects the story told on-screen: the relationship of Theodore and Samantha, the Operating System.
If I may, I will say that I really didn’t care for the wardrobe chosen for Joaquin’s Theodore. Sorry, but high-waist-belt-free pants look kind of silly. I won’t deduct points for this, but I had to mention it. By the way, doesn’t Shanghai in the P.R.C. look great as the stand in for L.A.? Four point zero is my rating.