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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 27 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 52
Her a spectacle of intimacy, heartbreak and understanding
Arts & Entertainment
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Her a spectacle of intimacy, heartbreak and understanding

by Sara Michelle Fetters SGN A&E Writer

HER
Now Playing


Spike Jonze is as singular and as original a filmmaker as there is working today. The man behind such iridescent achievements as Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, this idiosyncratic filmmaker has outdone himself with the beguiling, multifaceted science fiction influenced love story, Her. Set in a Los Angeles of the very near future, this is as perfect and as precise an examination of our current obsession with technology and with living our lives online as anything that I've ever seen, it's that prescient and innovative.

More than that, though, it is an honestly constructed romance that enlivens the soul, understanding the delicate intricacies of the human heart with startling perceptiveness. It's relatable in ways difficult to describe, a fact made more impressive when you consider that the central love affair revolves around a human being of flesh, blood and bone and a programmed computer operating system made of software, code and unfathomable bits of digitized circuitry.

Yes, you read that right. Her revolves around the romance between a man and, not a computer, not a machine, but an operating system (O.S. for short). What's more, it's believable. Better, it's authentic, traversing the heart's most mysterious pathways with remarkable ease. Jonze's script is an incredible one-of-a-kind-journey of self-discovery and experimentation that is universal in its humanistic underpinnings, making relating to all that's taking place a far easier thing than one might initially surmise.

The central protagonist is Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), a sensitive creative sort who makes his living composing handwritten letters of affirmation, thanks and love for others. But as good as he is at doing this, getting into the mindset of those seeking his services with ease, his own personal life is a mess, the thirty-something writer dealing with the repercussions of a failed marriage he refuses to put behind him.

Enter Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). She's the voice of a brand new operating system Theodore has recently purchased to run his personal systems. She's smart, funny, insightful and amazingly intuitive, showcasing a zest for learning and a passion for life he hasn't allowed himself to experience since his marriage dissolved. Theodore is smitten, the pair evolving one-with-the-other as the man learns to open his heart back to others, while the O.S. evolves into a self-aware consciousness eager to experience all of the emotions the world has to offer.

Jonze allows the futuristic aspects of his scenario to augment all that it is he's talking about, the filmmaker looking at our online digital world and how we're slowly allowing ourselves to disconnect from human contact in shocking detail. At the same time he uses Theodore and Samantha's story to showcase how love can bloom and blossom in the most unique and unexpected of places, each bringing out the best in the other as they both progress into something vibrant, alive and, most of all, new.

Phoenix gives a performance that's as superb as anything he's ever given, at the very least equaling last year's turn in The Master, but still catching me continually by surprise. This is as nakedly open and as emotionally pure an acting job as any this year, every facet of Theodore's being coming to light in incremental stages, depending on where his relationship with Samantha stands. Phoenix is raw, totally unvarnished, his smile capable of lighting up a room while his misery produces a bucket of tears just with the quivering of a lip or the trembling of an eyebrow.

Then, there is Johansson. I almost don't know what to say, as this is one of the best vocal performances I've ever come into contact with. This goes so far beyond the reading of lines, putting what she accomplishes in some sort of hardened, tactile perspective almost impossible. Safe to say, with nothing more than the timber of her voice or the enunciation of certain syllables, she crafts a living, breathing character out of a machine, developing a believable chemistry with her co-star capable of snapping a person's heart in two.

Splendid supporting work is turned in by Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt, Kristen Wiig, Olivia Wilde, Portia Doubleday and Laura Kai Chen, each making the most of their respective appearances, adding insights and gradations to the story that could not have existed without them. Arcade Fire provides the stirring, delicately balanced score, while Hoyte Van Hoytema's (Let the Right One In) cinematography impresses with its naturalistic visual evolutions. As for K.K. Barrett's (Where the Wild Things Are) production design, it's incredible, making the dichotomy between Jonze's futuristic ideas and the inherent modernisms of our 2013 society sublime.

In a year that's been filled with some magnificent cinematic entertainments, Her might just be the best of the bunch. Jonze has managed to do something that will catch many off-guard, the way this romance evolves and who the central players end up being not at all what most are going to expect. It is a beautiful, life-affirming achievement, building to a beguiling bit of perceptive understatement, that took my breath away. And while the world might be moving in increasingly robotized circles, that doesn't make the human connections we make any less essential.

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