Sunday, January 12, 2014

Film Review - "Her"

A review of Her after the jump:

The equal parts joyous and deeply sad Her is a melding of the delightfully odd with the beautifully straightforward. At the film's edges are many hilariously weird little touches, like the extremely (and I do mean extremely) profane creature Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) encounters in a futuristic video game he enjoys playing. Next to The World’s End and perhaps Frances Ha, I haven’t laughed harder at any film released in 2013 than I did at this movie. I also haven’t been nearly as moved by anything from this phenomenal film year as I was by its examinations of the mysteries of identity, love, and the mutually influential relationship between the two.

Theodore is one of three fantastically rich characters at the center of this affecting tale. Working for a company whose service is providing thoughtful, original cards for people who for whatever reason don’t want to spend their own time composing them, we see early on that he has the soul of a romantic poet. Yet his real romantic life is a mess. His marriage is about to end, and he spends his free time playing video games and calling strangers for phone sex. Early on he self-deprecatingly jokes about his loneliness and overconsumption of Internet porn to his friend Amy (Amy Adams). Her response: that she’d be more amused if he wasn’t speaking the truth.

One day, he goes out and buys a new operating system, designed with a highly advanced form of artificial intelligence that allows it to evolve. This is Samantha, portrayed by Scarlett Johansson in hands down the greatest voice performance I’ve ever witnessed in a movie. Her initial interactions with Theodore are played mostly for laughs, but even at this early juncture one can feel a distinct personality taking shape with every single word she speaks. It’s a wonderfully effervescent one, full of joy and excitement, and I defy anyone to not to love her within about a minute of meeting her. To the dispirited Theodore, her enthusiasm is infectious.

What follows is both a love story and a magnificent meditation on these two characters’ ever evolving identities, conveyed through beautifully acted and written conversations that represent some of the most profound cinema of this or any year. Among other things, Samantha speaks of her feelings, and of the feelings she had upon realizing they were feelings—all with a sense of wonder and awe. And Theodore speaks of his first love and soon to be ex-wife Catherine. We can feel them both changing and being shaped by one another right in front of our eyes.

Along the way, a number of questions are raised, one of the biggest being: is Theodore embarking on this new relationship as a way of avoiding dealing with a real person (much in the same way he retreats into the lives of strangers in the cards he writes)? Yet is Samantha less real than anyone else, aside from not having a corporeal form? The movie’s view—aided by the sheer vivacity and humanity of Johansson’s work—is unambiguous, but when the issue is brought up, it has major potential consequences for both individuals. How those issues resolve is something I’ll not discuss further. But suffice to say their story takes a number of additional turns, every one of which is surprising and profound. 

Equally moving is Her’s depiction of the friendship between Amy and Theodore. Like Theodore, Amy finds her worldview shifting, and they are able to help each other in navigating the new terrain on which they find themselves standing. Adams and Phoenix have an easy, natural chemistry in their scenes together that is simply blissful to watch, and is every bit as much an emotional cornerstone of this narrative as the equally strong romantic chemistry between him and Johansson. I don’t want to say too much about their final scene together, but it’s perfect as both a bittersweet affirmation of life and love’s mysteries and a testament to the ability of friendship can help us as we face those unfixed and unknowable aspects of being.

The film's visuals are perfectly calibrated to its emotional wavelength, crafting a vaguely futuristic setting defined by color, shape, and light: squares and rectangles of apartment buildings, gentle colors of edifices and rooms made even gentler by being bathed in the warm glow of the sun, and at some points a certain distance from the action that emphasizes Theodore's alienation from his surroundings. Yet Her—recognizing what an actor it has in Phoenix—also frequently uses the close-up to powerful effect, zeroing in on its lead character's face for a long, unbroken take on more than one occasion. Every emotion simply pops from the pristine compositions, whose at times almost antiseptic qualities can suggest either bliss or melancholy, depending on the mood of a given scene. 

If there's one incredibly minor flaw here, it's the fact that towards the end Jonze's script seems to be building to an ending multiple times, only to instead keep going, leaving us slightly exhausted by the time it reaches its final image. But it’s hard to begrudge it that quality when the reason it keeps going is because it has so much more to say. Instead of one perfect ending, we end up getting about three, with numerous additional rich and unexpected observations in between. It's barely a complaint, and one I suspect will disappear upon repeat viewings.

And repeat viewings will be essential for fully unlocking all of Her's thematic gifts. The closest comparison to it I can think of is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, one of the very best movies of the 2000s, and one that also dealt with love and connection from a new, science fiction-infused angle. Charlie Kaufman's script for that film was packed with both probing intellectual questions and haunting emotional resonance, and it was brought to vivid life onscreen by Michel Gondry and company. But the achievement of Jonze, cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, and everyone else involved in crafting this deeply layered masterwork is arguably better, getting at even richer truths about our individual identities and what happens when they cross paths with another's. I've always thought that while there are many great films released each decade, the number that truly cause us to contemplate our day to day existence in a new way generally stands at but a handful every ten years. This is not to say that such films are necessarily better than those that don't—Citizen Kane doesn't, and it's surely one of the five greatest films I've ever seen—but it's always exhilarating when you see one that you know in your soul belongs in this small group. Her does.

Grade: A

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