Spike Jonze Wows With Masterful "Her"

It’s sometime in the middle-distant future. Los Angeles is recognizable, but barely, its skyline pluming upwards as if trying to escape the hordes of people down below. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is one of those dots, a writer at BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com who serves as a conduit between lovers – and between present and past. Human contact has largely been superseded by technology, so much so that the handwritten note has become an industry unto itself. No one can be bothered with the physical act of writing anymore – let alone the thoughtful composition of said sweet nothings – so it falls on lemmings like Theodore.

Not that Theodore uses pen and paper – his work is all digitized. But his writings are the product of authentic human emotion, emotion that’s flowing more freely than ever now that he’s separated from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara). The world mirrors his loneliness, wielding technology like primitive man wielded fire – holding on for dear life. Society is so disconnected that it confuses sentience for sentiment – a misunderstanding that’s about to become all the more muddled with the introduction of a new operating system called OS1.

Theodore is a first adopter, jumping at the chance to keep his mind off his impending divorce. Upon installing OS1, he’s taken aback by the voice that it chooses for him. Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, might be a disembodied voice, but she’s a fully realized character – intuitive, caring, funny, and sexy. Our protagonist takes to her immediately, and she to him. Before long, their friendship blossoms into a full-fledged relationship.

The beauty of Spike Jonze’s screenplay is that it works wonderfully on a literal level, but it’s so multi-layered that its genre-crossing narrative can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Audiences can home in on Phoenix’s gentle, luminous performance and relate to his character’s lovelorn psyche. Or there’s the stunning production design that never distracts but always impresses.

There’s also Jonze’s sharp, esoteric comedic edge that carries the film’s first hour to heights not seen by any other movie this year. A small, foul-mouthed video game character emerges as one of its most unlikely sources of laughs. Like many classic films, “Her” doesn’t just do one thing really well or several things reasonably well. It hits every mark anyone could want from it – humor, romance, drama, remarkable visuals – all while creating a cinematic world that we’ve never seen before.

Jonze’s commentary on humanity’s increasing reliance on technology is obvious, but never deliberate, rarely usurping the story. And when the screenplay slides ever so slightly into generic romance territory, Jonze reliably tweaks the formula. The second hour is mostly predictable, but its nuances are so finely tuned, its tonal shifts so well executed, that it’s hard to dismiss any of it. Also, it’d be unfair to hold the brilliance of the first hour against the second.

Spike Jonze has journeyed into a genuinely rare genre here – the sci-fi drama – and emerged as victorious as ever. Of his four feature films, “Her” might be the best, which is no small feat in the company of “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation.” Most interestingly, his creative voice is still evolving – maybe even growing stronger – and his unheralded abilities as a writer are on full display here. And with Joaquin Phoenix following up his historically great performance in “The Master” with an equally affecting performance, moviegoers have every reason to seek out “Her.” Recommended.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Release Date: December 18, 2013 (Limited)
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Spike Jonze
Screenwriter: Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Scarlett Johansson
MPAA Rating: R (for language, sexual content and brief graphic nudity)