Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Review: What To Make Of 'Her,' Anyway? Hmmm?

The new Spike Jonze film is called her. Simply, her -- no capital letters.
It's set in the Los Angeles "of the slight future." We have no idea what the "slight" future may be.
But first, let's get some procedural matters out of the way. For the purposes of this review, we will refer to the movie as Her and use the traditional upper-case version of the title just so you know that we're talking about the movie itself and not just any her.
Her is sorta like You've Got Mail confronts the future. And it seems to be a reasonably distant future but at the rate things are going, who knows?
Did we mention that You've Got Mail itself was loosely based on the classic 1940 Ernst Lubitsch film The Shop Around The Corner? So, here we have a film based in the future but inspired by a 1940 movie which then inspired a 1949 remake, a 1963 musical (She Loves Me) and 1988's You've Got Mail. But forget 1940 for a moment. The whole thing actually started in 1937 with a Hungarian play called Parfumerie. In each case the story revolves around two people who fall in love as anonymous correspondents through their letters.
Except that in this new version, the "she" of She Loves Me (the "her" of the present title) is never seen because she really doesn't exist n the physical sense. She's a virtual she. In fact, she's an operating system -- an OS. And her name is Samantha, a name she herself chooses simply because she likes the sound of it.
So, we only hear Samantha's voice -- a lovely, sexy, inviting voice expertly provided by Scarlett Johansson.
Joaquim Phoenix is Theodore Twombly, the about-to-be-divorced, sensitive "new man" who has a job ghost writing intimate letters for the verbally (and presumably emotionally) challenged. He's the guy who falls in love with Samantha and has phone sex with her. But we're jumping ahead. Because we have to explain that Samantha is no mere virtual trick. She's intuitive and she also has artificial intelligence designed to adapt and evolve like a human being.
And yes, Theodore and Samantha have talked a great deal and developed a meaningful, emotional relationship before they even get to the sex part. But that only seems to complicate matters.
Here are a few warnings about this widely-heralded and multi-honred film: 1) There is much introspection here and a sort of pop-psychology underlying everything; 2) The main characters are hugely self-absorbed; 3) The movie can seem slow at times and during the "sex" scene the screen actually goes blank for what seems like an inordinate length of time; 4) The color orange plays a leading role along with rust and yellow. It helps if you find these colors appealing. Okay?
Now, back to the story . . .
Joaquim Phoenix is on the screen throughout the film and his idea of showing vulnerability or thoughtfulness seems to involve pushing his schoolboy glasses back up on his nose periodically. We're not blaming him since his character is giving to moping and introspection anyway. Rooney Mara plays his ex-wife and we're never quite sure why they've broken up. Apparently, she felt suffocated. In one scene she tells Theodore that she loves him so much she wants to kill him. Amy Adams plays Theordore's longtime friend (who's also divorcing her spouse) and she appears to be as full of angst as he is. The characters are like open wounds but the reasons for all the hurt are never fully explained.
As best as we can tell, Her is a movie about the difficulties of human relationships in a time of cyber-induced detachment. You're led to wonder: Have we insulated ourselves via devices and their attendant operating systems because we hurt each other so much or do we hurt each other so quickly and carelessly because the cyber-insulators have simply made us egocentric and insensitive to the pain we cause others. Which is it?
Sure, we understand that all of these devices and all of this software were supposed to bring us closer together. And maybe they have, sorta. And maybe that's why so many appear to be so frustrated -- because it's all too much. Which is to say that the artificiality of so many "friends" and/or "lovers" in cyberland leaves us wanting.
Because nothing can replace real, live, face-to-face interaction. We need to see one another, look into each other's eyes and interact with and touch one another, both figuratively and literally.
That's what Joaquim/Theodore discovers here. And he discovers it with Amy Adams whose character is (interestingly enough) also named Amy.
But a real, live, loving human relationship involves compromise and sacrifice and patience and commitment and a certain amount of selflessness. And along the way it can be painful. It isn't all sweet-talk and it's usually not very poetic.
These are not (or at least should not be) earth-shattering discoveries.
But set against where we seem to be headed, they are presented in a new way in Her. And the movie gives us much to think about.

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