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Her: iLove, American Style

Like a sleek new phone, Her still strains to connect

<I>Her</I>: iLove, American Style
Warner Bros.
He's still here: Phoenix, feeling.

The terrible reality of modern life is that even beautiful young people on a first date can't go a whole evening without checking their phones. We need to be potentially connected to every possibility at all times; just allowing the present to happen is becoming increasingly foreign. That's the idea Spike Jonze is scratching at in his futuristic romance Her, in which Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, an about-to-be-divorced Los Angeles writer who falls in love with an operating system, one designed not only to run his laptop and devices but to help him get through life; it intuits and meets his every need. That setup might sound weirder than it is: The voice of this OS — she calls herself Samantha — is Scarlett Johansson's, and if you heard it, shimmering into your brain through an earpiece all day, every day, as Theodore does, you'd fall in love with it, too.

That voice is very real. The complication is that it belongs not to a real woman but to an algorithmic construct. In case you haven't guessed, Theodore is using technology to avoid the pain of real human connection. And that's the problem with Her, too: Jonze is so entranced with his central conceit that he can barely move beyond it. This is a movie about a benumbed person that itself feels chloroformed, zonked out, even in those moments when Jonze is clearly striving for depth of feeling. Its metaphors are more obvious than the bricks that cruel mouse Ignatz used to hurl at poor, lovelorn Krazy Kat, and yet not nearly as direct. Instead of just being desperately heartfelt, Her keeps reminding us — through cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema's somber-droll camera work, through Phoenix's artfully slumped shoulders — how desperately heartfelt it is.

Theodore knows, just as you do, that real-life relationships are messier than anything we can channel through a handheld device. He still misses his soon-to-be-ex-wife (a desperately human prickly pear played by Rooney Mara), and his close platonic confidant (a colorlessly likable Amy Adams) has plenty of troubles of her own. But he just can't help his infatuation with Samantha. She isn't supposed to have feelings, but thanks to some miracle of science, she returns Theodore's affections. The two embark on rambling adventures through the city — Theodore tucks the Samantha-pod device in his shirt pocket, so she can peek out at the world through a little lens. She's a girlfriend you can literally keep in your pocket. The relationship is too good, and too wrong, to last.

Warner Bros.
Olivia Wilde
Warner Bros.
Olivia Wilde

Details

Her
Written and directed by Spike Jonze
Warner Bros.
Opens December 18
herthemovie.com



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But even as he acknowledges the uncontrollability of human relationships, Jonze never does anything so passionate as let go. There are many, many feelings stuck into Her, pin-cushion-style, but the result is a kind of overstuffed stupefaction. Jonze and Van Hoytema take great care with the visuals, working hard to hit notes of longing and mournfulness. At one point, a shot of airborne, sunlit dust motes transmutes into a field of falling snowflakes. How serene! How lovely! But what do dust motes have to do with snowflakes? Sometimes a technical trick can be too gorgeous, so previsualized that it comes off as a contrivance.

Much of the dialogue sounds premeditated, too. (This is the first picture Jonze has written as well as directed.) There's an old journalism rule about always using "says," never "opines" or "sighs." Her opines and sighs all over the place. "Sometimes I think I've felt everything I'm ever going to feel," Theodore confides glumly to Samantha. "And from here on out, I'm not going to feel anything new. Just lesser versions of what I've already felt." In the guise of being direct, the movie is actually maddeningly coy.

We're supposed to feel so much for Theodore in his Tom Selleck mustache, oh-so-winsomely plucking at a ukulele as he lounges in his underfurnished bachelor apartment; his life is as empty as his bookshelves. Phoenix is sometimes an astonishing actor, and not just when he's playing Johnny Cash; working with director James Gray in particular, in pictures like Two Lovers and We Own the Night, he has given astute, resonant performances, stripped of fussy mannerisms. But in Her, he's a stylized, mumbly drifter, so attached to his performance that he's barely attached to us. Johansson's voice, as plush and light-reflecting as velveteen, is the movie's saving grace; Samantha is the one character in Her who seems capable of delight. Samantha Morton was originally cast in the role and had completed the movie when, at the last minute, Jonze substituted Johansson. Morton is a terrific actress, but in this instance Jonze's instincts were golden. The movie isn't just unimaginable without Johansson — it might have been unbearable without her.

Theodore doesn't know what he wants, and probably fears that even if he knew, he wouldn't be able to get it. What human being hasn't felt that way? But it's hard to respond to onscreen romantic trauma and feelings of disconnection when they're so wan and wispy. There are whole chunks of Her, so arduously layered with soft-focus pain and cautious happiness, that could have been lifted from those '80s phone commercials touting the benefits of "staying connected." Theodore, like James Stewart in Vertigo, is in love with an illusion. The difference is that this spectacle and all its ideas would fit on the screen of your iPod.

 
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49 comments
smithandjones99
smithandjones99

This review gets it right!     This movie is horrible - the worst movie I have seen in 15 years. Not only did I want to shoot myself after 30 minutes - I couldn't figure out why the main character didn't just shoot himself and get his miserable life over. You do not need to watch the movie - the visuals provide NOTHING to the movie's substance - maybe that is because there is no substance in the movi anywhere. I hoped for some decent social commentary but even that escaped the director and writer. What the movie is really about is the emptiness of computerized communications - but we don't have to watch the emptiness for 2 hours to get that point - showing a little of the joy of actual humanity would be a better approach. This movie will be a box office bomb - guaranteed.

ajhuemmer
ajhuemmer

Despite my overall disagreement of everything this review has to say about the film, I would like to point out a few crucial flaws in the argument against it.


"Much of the dialogue sounds premeditated, too. (This is the first picture Jonze has written as well as directed.)"


To begin with, although it is the first feature length film, this is not the first picture Jonze has written and directed himself. In 2010, Jonze wrote and directed the short film I'm Here. Much like Her, I'm Here is loosely based in science fiction, but grounds itself in the classic story of love and loss, albeit found in technology. This idea is obviously one that endlessly fascinates Jonze to the length were he would choose to make a feature length film of it. He took flaws found in I'm Here and turned it into a masterpiece without sacrificing his own beautiful aesthetic or thoughts on romance.


This review also called Phoenix's character "a stylized, mumbly drifter, so attached to his performance that he's barely attached to us." Having professionally studied acting for many years and being an avid movie buff for many more, I can tell you that the actor need only connect with his character. There is no reason for a character to be attached to an audience. Was Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis) attached to his audience in There Will Be Blood? What about Mark Zuckerberg (Eisenberg) in The Social Network? These characters certainly seek no attachment to their audience. There are often stuck in their own heads, concerned about what is best for themselves. They give no thought of the audience, and they shouldn't. That's what makes great characters. 

In Pheonix's wonderful portrayal, Theodore had a full range of emotions that were not, as you say, "stuck into Her, pin-cushion-style", but rather each felt individually, changing from moment to moment, as human emotions often are. What you mistake for "wan and wispy" is actually a perfect mirror of fleeting sentiments and ever-changing passions.

LizaBNYC
LizaBNYC

This film is clearly a rip-off of the brilliant Lars and the Real Girl.  Rent that one, not this poor imitation.  

GoresEatsFilm
GoresEatsFilm

@ballsdontread Finally! There are some good points there I hadn't considered, though I think he undersells its initial brilliance and humor.

CoreyAtad
CoreyAtad

@davidehrlich Putting aside aesthetic disagreement, that review fundamentally misses the point that Samantha is a fully developed character.

joshc
joshc

@szacharek I liked it a lot, but imagined much less auteureal intent regarding how deeply we were supposed "feel for" Theo.

NathanCTensen
NathanCTensen

@szacharek Yes. Largely concur except on Phoenix's performance. I'd add that I thought the effect of its humor was emotional evasiveness.

NathanCTensen
NathanCTensen

@szacharek Yes. Largely concur except on Phoenix's performance. It'd add that I thought the effect of its humor was emotional evasiveness.

NathanCTensen
NathanCTensen

@szacharek Thank you! There's such a frustrating disparity between the sad magnificence of Phoenix's performance and the movie itself

tmibugbee
tmibugbee

@szacharek Word. Lovely but limp. I'd say the raves were headscratchers but it's such a Sensitive White Boy movie....of course it got raves.

rabbitwithfangs
rabbitwithfangs

@ajhuemmerHow can you be a 'professional' student? And if having an acting/drama degree means you 'know better' than an actual professional film critic, why has no-one told me? Because I got my degree back in 90s, so obviously my opinion;
Her was dreadful. A whining, oh-i'm-so-sad lead character who gets a manic pixie dream girl.com he can literally carry around in his pocket. I haven't been that bored in a theatre since Titanic.
counts more than yours.

Joedee
Joedee

@LizaBNYC No, sorry, this movie is not even remotely like Lars and the Real Girl. Samantha(Johansson)is as human, and in some ways more human than the male protagonist played by Phoenix. The Doll in Lars does not interact, communicate, or relate to it's main character who is basically autistic. 

GoresEatsFilm
GoresEatsFilm

@ballsdontread You know what? Her does kinda feel like a lost Apple commercial with its soft photography, muted color palette, and emotions.

davidehrlich
davidehrlich

@CoreyAtad …no. i mean, i think the character is developed just fine, but that is not the point and not why the movie isn’t "amazing."

mikulas
mikulas

@tmibugbee @szacharek 


Hmm. Maybe I'm the only one who feels this way, but I thought this movie was a brilliant criticism of the self-absorbed Sensitive White Boy and his manic pixie dream girl obsession.  


I walked out of theatre thinking that I'd just seen a movie told completely from the perspective of a man who lies to himself, gets sympathy as a "good guy" who can't catch a break, and whose perspective is not to be trusted by the audience.  The film gives us glimpses of truth in women who say what Theodore hears as hurtful speech, but is actually spot on and rational.  And it winks at us through over the top, misogynist video games and Theodore and Samantha's "Zooey Deschanel" moments (complete with ukelele!)  


How else do Samantha's closing lines make any sense?  Or the diagnostic questions from OS1?  This isn't a movie about a Sensitive White Boy.  This is the gut-wrenching experience of sharing a set of eyes with a insufferable, self-absorbed, self-proclaimed "good guy" who folds any time his "dream woman" turns out to be a complex human being.  The pain of the end is not about lost love, it's about a man who is just waking up to the hard work it takes to be a real person.

ballsdontread
ballsdontread

@GoresEatsFilm It absolutely does. Particularly because it isn't very critical or probing about anything - more superficial and zonked-out.

CoreyAtad
CoreyAtad

@davidehrlich Maybe, but there seems to be a serious misunderstanding here. He's not in love with an illusion. Samantha is a person.

GoresEatsFilm
GoresEatsFilm

@ballsdontread And yet there's enough interesting stuff in it that I think I'd still give it a favorable review. Just not a glowing one.

davidehrlich
davidehrlich

@CoreyAtad it’s a good movie. i gave it a nice review. i’ve seen it several times now, and i don’t think it’s anything particularly special.

CoreyAtad
CoreyAtad

@davidehrlich She's not wrong, certainly. Fits the film's purpose though. I was lost in it. Also the high-waisted pants.

davidehrlich
davidehrlich

@CoreyAtad i strongly disagree, but i cited Zacharek’s review more for the accusations of the film being “wan and wispy.” she’s very right.

davidehrlich
davidehrlich

@CoreyAtad it sounds like a semantic difference, but i nevertheless feel as though you need to reconsider Samantha’s initial appeal to him.

CoreyAtad
CoreyAtad

@davidehrlich I still disagree with that. She's a more simple person. He teaches her things. That's powerful in creating attraction.

davidehrlich
davidehrlich

@CoreyAtad i agree, but i think it’s crucial that she is NOT a person when he is first enamored by her, which is WHY he’s enamored by her.

CoreyAtad
CoreyAtad

@davidehrlich It's two characters who sync at first, and then change each other to the point where they're no longer compatible.

CoreyAtad
CoreyAtad

@davidehrlich No, he falls in love with a person onto whom he projects an ideal. But the breakdown of the ideal isn't even the issue.

davidehrlich
davidehrlich

@CoreyAtad not mutually exclusive ideas. but he does not fall in love with a person. he loves something that eventually ACHIEVES personhood.

CoreyAtad
CoreyAtad

@davidehrlich He learns that a relationship is an inherently transformative experience for both people.

davidehrlich
davidehrlich

@CoreyAtad he learns *how* to love a person by the end. that’s his entire journey in a nutshell.

davidehrlich
davidehrlich

@CoreyAtad disagree. he’s in love with as an ideal, when she achieves personhood (and beyond) their relationship deteriorates.

 

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