Her could be the best by Spike Jonze’s and the Oscar favorite

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4 out of 4 stars

In a day and age where the idea of communication has reached a bit of a muddled point, it is nice to see a film about two people who can be so open with one another and share a beautiful life together.

So what if they have no physical contact with one another?  So what if there is a 40-something-year age difference?

And so what if one of them might not even have emotions at all?

The incomparable Spike Jonze’s crowning achievement Her deftly tackles themes of relationships, technology, and human connection with his singular eye for detail.  The fantastic ensemble handles his material with sensitivity and honesty, material that is simultaneously heartbreaking and laugh-out-loud hilarious.  Profound, perceptive, and unique, this is easily one of the best films of 2013.

spike-jonze-her-500x332Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) works writing personal letters in near-future Los Angeles, a future where a day in the life revolves around the technology at one’s disposal: checking email, checking the news, playing video games… crazy to imagine, right?  Theodore and his wife of eight years Catherine (Rooney Mara) have recently broken up and he is currently trying to get back on his feet.  His life is quickly turned upside down after he sees an advertisement for a new product called the “OS-1”, a personal, artificial intelligence operating system.

Theodore buys the OS, a computerized personality named Samantha (the voice of Scarlett Johansson) who has empathy, humor, and passion beyond our expectations for a computer program.  Samantha acts as friend, secretary, psychologist, and more to Theodore, and before long, he finds himself falling in love with her… and she with him.

Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich and Where the Wild Things Are) can be a hard pill to swallow sometimes, his deliberate pacing and subtle handling of thematic material living outside the “mass appeal”, so to speak.  Her is his most approachable, streamlined piece yet in every way, shape, and form.  His screenplay is completely organic and honest with a new spin on the frame of mind of the future human race combined with sympathetic characters and profound observations on our reliance on technology.

There is something so inexplicably beautiful about the relationship between Theodore and Samantha that never manages to shake the looming shadow overhead; yet, the twists and turns of the plot will still catch you by surprise throughout.  Jonze directs sensitively and purposefully with a cheeky, sometimes naughty flare that completely justifies his choice to make this a true comedy.  The editing trips slightly from time to time, but this never takes away from the emotion and humor that Jonze and his actors achieve.

Is there a better movie made in 2013 than Her? (Publicity screenshot)
Is there a better movie made in 2013 than Her?
(Publicity screenshot)

Joaquin Phoenix gives a nuanced, well-balanced performance that may be his best and most grounded to date.  He is charismatic and honest, but we find sympathy for the heartbreak he can’t seem to let go of.  The rest of the ensemble is equally strong, with beautifully understated work from Rooney Mara and an emotionally fragile, beautifully executed performance by Amy Adams as his neighbor Amy.

Endless praise absolutely must be given to Scarlett Johansson, however, for nailing one of the most unique acting challenges ever put on film.  She is able to show Samantha’s curiosity, delicacy, and perceptiveness with nothing but her voice and her work here must not go underappreciated.

The unrecognizable familiarity of the future is deftly handled by Jonze’s team.  Furnished in candy colors and aerodynamic silhouettes, this is a clearly Apple-influenced universe not too far off from the direction we seem to be heading now.  The choice to place hardware in the foreground as opposed to software is very smart, as it makes Samantha more believable as a character and doesn’t demand reasons or explanations for her existence.  Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (Let the Right One In and The Fighter) recreates and respects the rampant LCD lighting of this future and creates beautiful, painting-like portraits using the sun as a focus.

Arcade Fire provides a contemporary score with melancholy chord progressions that build in orchestration as Theodore’s life with Samantha blossoms.  The acknowledgement of the score in the characters’ ears (or… microphones… in some cases) is beautifully executed.  And a hilariously foreboding take on costumes is presented with some futuristic styles that never go beyond Final Frontier territory.

Spike Jonze has already established himself as one of the most prolific directors of our time, and Her only further proves this thanks to his sensitivity and creativity.  He has created an insightful, contemporary screenplay that puts a new spin on the “future” and establishes a benchmark for where the cinematic love story can go.  You have never seen anything like this and you owe it to yourself to experience a boundary-pushing work of art like Her.  So go ask Siri where it’s playing and see if she can get tickets for the two of you… er, I mean, for you.

(This review first appeared on the Baltimore Post-Examiner)