Rob Harmon’s Picks 5/27/14

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksHer (dir. Spike Jonze, 2013)

Occasionally science fiction films come along which are so unnervingly close to our own present situation that it can be difficult to parse out what we are already experiencing and what is conjecture on the part of the creator’s imagination. A perfect example of this is Spike Jonze’s latest film, and winner of last year’s Academy Award for best original screenplay, HER.

Her is highly unusual for a film of its type, its terrain emotional, psychological, dreamy, and reflective rather than concerned with the usually grandiose issues dealt with in movies which are set in the future: primal fears of war, economic collapse, invasion, and technological advancement. If Her seems claustrophobic and more than a little bleak it is because its essential theme is our increasingly narrow and compromised emotional space—a shrinking beachhead of sanity—in a society which is continually being crowded out and run over by a clutter of static and inane sounds and images.

The film begins with an arresting close-up of Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) as he stares into the camera and dictates a passionate letter somewhere off-screen, yet his viewpoint is confusing: could these possibly be his own feelings? Surely he is voicing the sentiments of someone much older than he could possibly be? This riddle is resolved once the action cuts away and the audience recognizes that Theodore is in an office—a über-chic one, at that, modern and minimalist—and that this is “the future,” where Theodore and his co-workers “write” letters—in a wide range of styles and levels of intimacy—on demand for their unseen clients. The effect of these early sequences, as the camera follows Theodore through an office filled with synthetic and contrived emotions and tracking along with him on his commute home through a familiar yet strange cityscape, is hypnotizing and magisterial, though also downbeat and mellow.

We soon find that Theodore lives a simple life. He works, he goes home, he daydreams about his faded marriage to Catherine (Rooney Mara) whom he finds endless ways to delay his divorce with. He occasionally hangs out with frumpy friend and neighbor Amy (Amy Adams)—a video game programmer—and her neurotically controlling husband Charles (Matt Letscher). He spends a lot of time on the computer, answering e-mail, playing games, searching for a quick and anonymous phone sex partner (voice of Kristen Wiig in a hilarious sequence), and mainly interfacing with the male, monotone voice of his operating system through a small earpiece and a tiny remote module which fits snugly in the palm of the hand (about the size of an old-fashioned little black address book). Soon, Theodore notices that a new operating system with artificial intelligence has hit the market and he picks it up. When installing the new OS, the machine asks him a few basic questions about himself and whether he would like a male or a female voice; he replies “female.” It thereupon addresses him in a smoky, husky female voice (Scarlett Johansson) and names itself “Samantha.”

As Theodore navigates the stiflingly lonely frontiers of his existence he comes to rely more and more upon Samantha, not just for information and data retrieval, but for her growing emotional maturity. Soon, it is clear that love has bloomed for both Theodore and Samantha but what sort of consequences can there be for a man-computer relationship in a not-so-distant future?

The experience of watching Her is disorienting and a little bit strange as it is a love story where only one of two characters has a body, presenting the viewer with some interesting challenges in where to apply their mental focus. Luckily, the film enjoys an enormously talented lead actor in Phoenix, who is able to defy the odds and hold the picture together. His Theodore is a uniquely sympathetic introvert, whose shambling Everyman presence, glasses, and bland mustache disguise a rich emotional life. If any man could be said to be “passed by time,” it is surely the withered and reflective Theodore. The other performances in Her are equally good top-to-bottom, from important supporting roles like that of the continually impressive Adams right down to a bit voice part by Jonze himself as an ornery pipsqueak of an AI video game character.

The music in Her, by indie superstars The Arcade Fire, is appropriately elegiac and moody and the beautifully muted camerawork is by upstart Dutch cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, THE FIGHTER, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY). Jonze, who—like the subject of last week’s post Jonathan Glazer—got his start in the biz with acclaimed work in the music video field, is best known as the director of BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and ADAPTATION. His latest work, charting emotional fallout of a decidedly futuristic but eerily-familiar variety, finds him in full command of his powers.