Considering the fact that he just starred in “The Master” last year, I had a hard time believing that Joaquin Phoenix could be romantic comedy/drama material. In that movie, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, he plays Freddie Quell, World War Two veteran suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder. He stumbles and staggers through that movie like an intoxicated, wild beast. He has erratic behaviors and violent mood swings. He spends most of the movie hunched over, his arms usually locked on his sides, in a stiff arch. He’s a lost and lonely soul.
Aside from the lonely soul part, Phoenix’s portrayal of Theodore in “Her—“ Spike Jonze’s outstanding new romantic dramady and sci fi of sorts—is the exact opposite of Freddy Quell. He’s sweet, sensitive and gentle. Where Freddie would suddenly act out violently Theodore wouldn’t hurt a fly. While Phoenix’s performance in “The Master” is more physical (think of the slouching and the stiffness) and extroverted, his portrayal of Theodore is very much internalized and draws the viewer into his world and emotions that way.
“Her” is set in Los Angeles in the near future; at one time Theodore was happily married to a girl named Catherine (Rooney Mara, in a brief but effective performance) but now he’s in the process of getting a divorce and is feeling down. His heart has practically been torn in half. For the most part Phoenix wonderfully shows this pain and agony through looks and soft deliveries of his lines. Theodore works as a professional letter writer, the kind that loved ones write to one another. He sits at his desk and dictates a passionate love letter into a microphone and it gets automatically transcribed in handwritten format. In this future even hand written love letters, something extremely personal, has become impersonal and industrialized.
Except for occasionally running into a college friend Amy, (Amy Adams) Theodore spends most of the time alone. He’s a damn good letter writer, and seems to empty his soul into each and every one of them, but they’re all for someone else. Thankfully Jonze (who also wrote the screenplay) doesn’t spend too much time showing Theodore wallowing in sadness and loneliness and before long we’re introduced to Theodor’s love interest Samantha. However here’s the twist, Samantha is a disembodied operating system designed to be his companion and meet his every need. Theodore doesn’t quite know what to do at first, I mean, how does one form a genuine relationship with a computer? Though, Samantha has been designed with intuition, which allows her to learn fairly quickly.
Samantha is played by Scarlett Johansson in voice only and much like Douglas Rain who played the intelligent computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” she infuses so much life and personality into Samantha. We don’t need to see her on the screen; her voice allows us to craft our own image of her in our minds.
Not long after Theodore purchases Samantha (that sounds so peculiar doesn’t it?) they begin to form bond that begins to resemble actual love. Since Samantha is a computer and Theodore is a flesh and blood human he teaches her a lot about human relationships and love, he even opens up to her about his marriage with Catherine and how it ended. He begins to trust her. But she also manages to teach him a few things too, like how to rediscover the excitement and mystery in life and lift him out of his funk. Weirdly enough the two end up making a great pair, each one seeing the world from a different view and both having lessons to teach one another.
I realize that some of this sounds corny and conventional and the movie does contain the same ups and downs one would usually find in a romantic comedy, but the movie is incredibly well made; Jonze stages each scene and interaction with the upmost authenticity, his screenplay is full of acute and witty dialogue, and the score by Arcade Fire subtly accompanies the rest of the movie.
The concept is very quirky and strange, though considering it’s directed by Spike Jonze, (who directed “Adaption” and “Being John Malkovitch”) that shouldn’t come as a surprise, this is the kind of material he excels in. It also may be difficult for some to take the film entirely seriously, especially at first but as the movie goes on, as Samantha and Theodore get closer and as Samantha becomes more advanced, that initial oddness of the concept begins to fade away and you find yourself invested in these characters as if they were a regular romantic dramady couple. In addition, Jonze knows to inject plenty of humor into the film, as opposed to making it completely drama, which makes it much more pleasurable and easy to watch.
With this concept, “Her” can also be looked at partly as a commentary on the advantages and disadvantages of online relationships and more generally, how relationships have evolved and adapted with the recent breakthroughs in technology. Is it possible to have a meaningful relationship with someone who’s not physically there, but in a metal box? With all of the advancements in technology, people have a multitude of ways to communicate (Facebook, Skype, etc.) and while these methods do yield advantages does it feel the same as having physical contact with someone? Can it ever replace that contact? These are just some of the questions and themes Jonze explores. The picture is full of observations and insights about life and love just waiting to be discovered and appreciated.
“Her” is one of the most refreshing romantic comedy/dramas I’ve seen in recent years and I have a feeling most people will love it. It’s funny, touching, has a hint of sci fi, and a gimmick that sets it apart from the others. However, the movie wouldn’t be nearly as great without Johansson and especially Phoenix. We see a soulful, delicate side of him we’ve never seen in any of his other movies. Phoenix went through a bit of a rough patch (starring in the terrible documentary “I’m Still Here,” in which he played a version of himself trying to become a hip hop singer) but now it’s safe to say that he’s back.