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In Movies & TV Reviews

Joaquin Phoenix stars in "Her," now playing.

"Her" finds genuine emotion in artificial life


A man falls in love with his computer.

On paper and shaved down to its simplest form, "Her" sounds like a terrible Adam Sandler movie (which is redundant nowadays). However, writer/director Spike Jonze – making his first feature film since 2009's adaptation of "Where the Wild Things Are" – manages to take that premise and turn it into one of the most emotionally complex, beautiful, creative, yearningly sweet, melancholy and tender on-screen portrayals of love and relationships, both lost and found, to come out of the past year.

It takes a romance that should feel transparently fake, and instead makes it feel sincere and real in all of its deep, intimate pleasures and pains.

It's the nearby future (much to some audience members' possible dismay, the future – according to "Her" – is hipsters, with ironic mustaches and high-waisted trousers not only the rage, but the norm), and Theo (Joaquin Phoenix) is alone. During the day, he works at a Los Angeles-based website which writes beautiful handwritten letters for people who can't come up with the words or emotions to write a letter themselves.

At night, he retreats home alone to play a strange interactive video game featuring an adorable but profane little alien (voiced by Jonze). His only other real interactions are with his old filmmaker friend Amy (Amy Adams) and her husband (Matt Letscher) who live in the same building.

Mostly, however, his emotions are haunted by his impending divorce from his childhood sweetheart Catherine (Rooney Mara), realizing years of giving and sharing one's life to another person are coming to a brutal end. In a flashback, he remembers them being cute together, with her jokingly saying, "I love you so much I'm going to f*cking kill you." The latter part of that sentiment suddenly painfully sticks out more than the former.

Theo's low-fi sci-fi world is one where technology and emotion have become utterly intertwined, for better or for worse. Songs are no longer classified by title; instead, Theo merely says the emotion he wants, and a fitting song plays accordingly. In his cold solitude, he tries out a cybersex hotline, leading to a hilarious sequence where a mildly promising interaction with an unseen woman (voiced by Kristen Wiig) takes a turn for the bizarre and demented.

Jonze's fascinating vision of near-future Los Angeles feels to the audience just as it does to Theo as he attempts to reconnect with society and be on his own again: oddly familiar yet alien. It's a world both warm and cold, colorful and muted at the same time. The question becomes clear: In an increasingly online world, where emotions seem more generated than actually felt, how do we connect with others?

For Theo, the answer to that question is Samantha, a new Siri-like OS voiced by Scarlett Johansson (originally voiced by Samantha Morton). After downloading the software and answering a few questions – basic information and then, most amusingly, "How is your relationship with your mother?" – Samantha is up and running, functioning as a chipper best friend, doting secretary and thoughtful psychologist funneled through a tiny Bluetooth-like ear piece that looks like the cap to a dry-erase marker.

Soon, Samantha and Theo start connecting, with Theo opening up about missing Catherine and Samantha opening up about her self-aware emotional limitations as a computer program. That connection carefully moves toward something more romantic in nature.

Even Theo and Samantha are dubious about forming a relationship and find it a bit weird, but the characters and "Her" take it seriously, and as a result the audience does as well. Much of that is due to Jonze's emotionally acute and deft script, which continually unearths genuine feelings and truths in what should – by definition, really – be an artificial and foreign relationship.

Jonze captures the nuanced emotions that evolve over the course of a relationship, from the exuberance of feeling a growing connection with another person to the happiness of a relationship in full bloom to the painful emotions that, in almost all cases, are doomed to come along as well. The jealousy. The awkward confusion. The heartache and loneliness of no longer having a warm bond – physically and emotionally – with another person anymore and having no idea where to find it again. The way others can scrape away at a person's insecurities, infecting oneself and one's relationships.

"Her" is never a ribald comedy by any stretch. However, by its midway point, it turns drastically away from humor and fully into a drama about complicated people in a complicated relationship. The movie rewardingly lets everything play out, as well, getting a full picture of people in and out – and the other way around – of love.

At the same time, Theo and Samantha's emotions feel universal without sacrificing the unique specificity of their actual relationship. After all, oh that's right: One of our love birds is a computer.

Once again, the movie takes the relationship seriously, both emotionally and logistically. Characters act reasonable, whether that be baffled, amazed or confused. And yes, as with most relationships, the topic of sex must be broached. However, it's handled smartly, both in a sweetly touching fashion and later as the relationship hits some struggles. Everything about Samantha, the world and their relationship feels organic to Jonze's version of future society, so it doesn't feel merely like quirk.

In the end, that's part of what makes "Her" so fascinating. It's both a movie about how humans connect to other humans and how humans connect to technology, with its possibilities and limitations. And both elements feel heartbreakingly and heartwarmingly honest.

The relationship couldn't work without the two lead performances. It's a fairly subdued turn for Phoenix (last seen rabidly slamming his head violently against a prison bed and drinking paint thinner in "The Master"), but the acting is no less incredible. He looks like a typical sad indie movie dweeb (with hipster apparel to match), but his loneliness and heartbreak, as well as the eventual warmth and joy, feel completely natural.

Then there's the actual her in "Her." I was skeptical originally of the award buzz for Johansson, who's never on screen once, but I've flipped on that opinion completely. It's an incredible performance from Johansson and a tribute to the power of what merely a voice can create. It's another role could've been an indie cliché (a Manic Pixel Dream Girl, if you will) or tarted up into some uncomfortable male fantasy, but thanks to her invitingly warm voice work – and Jonze's script – Samantha feels, well, human.

Most impressively, thanks to the two performances – and the sharp, soulful writing – the audience buys whole-heartedly into the chemistry, love and affection in a relationship where the two leads are never in the same room together. That is, unless the audience irrationally hates hipsters. In that case, hope for Samantha to snap in its more apocalyptic, action-oriented sequel, "Her-minator 2: Judgment Day."



Theaters and showtimes for Her
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Photodavie | Jan. 13, 2014 at 8:51 a.m. (report)

I was skeptical about this film, but having seen all of the Golden Globe nominated films, it is up there with American Hustle and 12 years a slave. Definately one of the years best. You have to give credit for originality. Hasn't been a movie like this before. Jaquin gives an amazing performance, basically 2 hours on screen talking to himself. He really sells the love story.

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TosaJim | Jan. 10, 2014 at 12:05 p.m. (report)

I watched the trailers and this movie creeped me out.

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