Film Review: Her

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Plot: As his divorce looms closer, a down on his luck writer (Joaquin Phoenix) buys an artificial intelligence operating system and begins to fall in love with it.

If you’re someone who really likes to think deeply about a film after it’s finished, and love dissecting layers and layers of themes, subtext, and all that mumbo jumbo, then this is the movie for you. If you’re someone who loves great movies, then this is also for you. Her is a near masterpiece. While we are meant to believe this to take place in the near future, I’m not so sure. Director Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) basically takes WALL-E, but eliminates the kid elements, space, and all the fantastical shenanigans. This is a world totally run by iEverything, but there’s still human interaction going on. You can see it fading though, which makes this film far more frighteningly realistic. But aside from all the subtext, and deeper meanings, and yadda, yadda, yadda, this is a dramedy, and at its core, a love story between man and woman, man and machine, and so much more.

Joaquin Phoenix is an inspired choice for Theodore Twombly. Phoenix’s versatility as an actor is nothing short of amazing. In The Master, we see him as a subdued nutcase, who at any moment could randomly go berserk. In Her, he’s a likable sweet writer who’s going through severe loneliness after separating from his wife, played by Rooney Mara. But even in his depression, he’s not sitting around moping all day. You can tell he’s funny, has friends, and a zest for life. While he’s certainly a great protagonist to root for, you can understand why he’s separated. There’s a bit of selfishness and slight douchebaggery in him. Phoenix gives a perfect performance. He’s asked to give a wide range of emotions, and he’s always fascinating. Will he win an Oscar? Probably not. But I can’t imagine anyone else in the role. There is someone else in the film though who might be Oscar worthy.

I’ve never been the biggest Scarlett Johansson fan, but 2013 has changed that. With an already great performance in Don Jon earlier this year, Johansson is absolutely stellar in providing the voice of Samantha, Theodore’s operating system. When people kept throwing Andy Serkis’ name around for an Oscar nomination as Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, it really irritated me. It’s a great performance, but I just can’t go along with motion capture for an Oscar. The actor isn’t on screen, I’m sorry. Scarlett Johansson out does Serkis though, and her voice over may have actually convinced me on motion capture/voice over nominations. Johansson is funny, inquisitive, intelligent, sad, and makes anybody believe you could fall in love with her. There’s just something about Johansson’s voice that sounds human and machine all at the same time. It is an absolutely heartbreaking performance, and it might as well be a modern day Pinocchio.

The relationship she has with Phoenix is some of the best chemistry I’ve seen in a romantic film in years. The scenes where she wishes she had a body and wants to learn about the world are written and delivered so beautifully, it just kills you. While they can get very talky at times, it doesn’t really matter, because it’s all perfectly written. This is why the film works. You don’t want to believe a human being can fall in love with a machine, but there’s a part of you that wants the relationship to succeed because of the performances, and this is where the movie is brilliant…this is where it challenges you.

Aside from Phoenix and Johansson, there are great supporting roles as well. Amy Adams (who’s been in three excellent movies this year) plays Amy, a spunky longtime friend of Theodore, and who also has similar problems. Their relationship is crucial to the film, and a lot of fun. Chris Pratt, in what seems like his 900th movie this year, also has a nice little role. Rooney Mara is great as Theodore’s wife, but is it just me, or is Mara always playing these lovelorn bitter characters who are also kind of scary? She even asks Theodore at one point if she’s frightening him! As great as the characters are, they are put in some absolutely brilliant situations.

There are two scenes that poignantly show the dark path that follows once Theodore decides to pursue this relationship. I won’t spoil too much, but they both involve a bit of intimacy. The complexities of each scene are staggering, as both are powerful and unnatural at the same time. I’ve never seen a film that explores this type of territory before, but Jonze absolutely knocks it out of the park with his direction. One of these scenes involves Theodore, Samantha, and another human. This will absolutely make your head explode. It’s funny, but not really. It’s a tone that’s difficult to get across, but you know exactly what the director wants you to feel.

What also draws you in is that even though Theodore is dating an artificial intelligence, he almost seems more human than many other people in the film. There’s a great moment where he’s upset after an argument with Samantha, and he just looks at everybody walking around him talking into their technology. He’s dating the robot, yet he looks the most human in this scene. What also shocked me was that Theodore just flat out tells people, “Yea, I’m dating my operating system.” Everyone is just so cavalier about it! “Yeah, whatever dude, you want to get lunch?” With WALL-E, it’s blatant that all these fat people sit around and interact through technology, but here it’s more subtle, which is why Her is a much darker film.

For as deep as the film gets though, there’s plenty of great comedy and lighthearted moments. There’s a character interaction in here that could have been taken right out of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, just more vulgar. It’s little touches like this that give the technology a lot of charm. There’s even a bit of 2001: A Space Odyssey present, as there are certain shots of Theodore’s phone that deliberately emulate Hal 9000, no doubt about it in my opinion.

Her is filmmaking at its finest. While the ending is what I expected, how they got there took me by surprise, but it made perfect sense. Amidst all the heaviness and thought provoking moments, we have a simple character arc for Theodore, making this a truly flawless screenplay. It’s also got a great score by Arcade Fire. But it’s not until the final shot, which is so subtle, and so perfectly sums up what this movie is about, did I realize how brilliant of a film this really was. Spike Jonze has delivered an instant classic that will only get better with age.

Rating: 9 out of 10 (OMG)

Daniel Cohen is the hard-boiled Film Editor for the Pop Break. Besides reviews, Daniel writes box office predictions, Gotham reviews and Oscar coverage. He can also be found on the Breakcast. If Daniel was sprayed by Scarecrow's fear toxin, it would be watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen on a non-stop loop.

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