Saturday, December 21, 2013
Review: 'HER' Genuinely Depicts The State Of Modern Relationships
As we've become more digitally dependent and less akin to one another over the years, it's a wonder why a movie like HER hasn't come around sooner. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, the film touches on aspects of physical connection of which we've been too busy emailing, texting and video chatting to take notice--particularly how we are now at a point where human contact is met with resistance and even fear.
Enter Theodore Twombly (Phoenix), a Los Angeles man who escapes from having to face the pain of his looming divorce from wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) by helping other people express their emotions as a writer for BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, where he pens sweet love letters on behalf of others. He is awakened out of this isolated state by the comforting voice of Samantha, his new operating system. But Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, isn't your typical Siri-like digital know-it-all; it actually has a personality and a sense of humor. It doesn't just recite information to Theodore; it has conversations with him. Before he can stop himself, Theodore falls for Samantha. And Samantha, though still struggling with the idea of human emotions, reciprocates his.
While its premise invites skepticism (and maybe even some eye rolls), HER encourages the audience to look beyond the obvious logical question of how a human could fall in love with his operating system and experience Theodore and Samantha's relationship with them. We never actually see Samantha, of course, but we meet her in several different ways and--through Johansson's accessible portrayal--she becomes less of an It and more of a She. We begin to believe them together, as other characters in the film are similarly unfazed by their relationship of which they take public with little hesitation. After all, as Theodore's mutually lonely friend Amy (Amy Adams) states that "Love is socially accepted form of insanity."
While writer/director Spike Jonze creates a fascinating contemporary romance tale, complete with realistic snags, what is most interesting is the story's underlying commentary. Does Theodore fall in love with Samantha, or the idea of Samantha--who is essentially the perfect woman, personalized to his every need and desire and completely uninhibited by the baggage of past relationship failures? Interestingly, as Samantha's emotions continue to evolve and she develops more initiative, Theodore pulls away and blames it on a combination of not being ready for a new relationship and the awkwardness of their situation. It's a visceral moment in the film that mostly serves as a trajectory for Samantha. The pressure of any kind of relationship sends Theodore sprawling back to his desolate emotional space, leaving Samantha vulnerable in cyber space.
Phoenix once again delivers a terrific performance that is equally wrought with emotional depth and stagnation. While he shares many scenes with Johansson (who also breathes life into a role that could have been so much less in the wrong hands), Phoenix bares a singular depiction of both the era and the character confined to it. Theodore's more comfortable solitude is nicely complemented by Adams' more dependent existence, Amy is someone caught in between of the new and old world and finding that she may not belong in either.
The only performance that takes you out of the film a bit comes from Mara, who is completely miscast. Though she commits as much as she can to the role of Catherine, Mara is simply too young to play a character is supposed to have grown up together with Phoenix's character. She comes off more pouty than resentful of Theodore, who casually mentions that he appreciates his new relationship in a way that he couldn't when he was with Catherine.
Otherwise, the film is beautiful to watch. Even down to the set decorations, which look like they were borrowed from the Lost in Translation set, amplify the feeling of human distance with its sharp edges and artful yet uninviting colors. Moving, timely and more profound than it should be, HER is romantic comedy gem.
Rating: A- (**** out of *****)
HER is now playing in select theaters and will open nationwide on January 10th.