Warner Bros. Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya by Harvey Karten. Data-based on RottenTomatoes.com
Director: Spike Jonze
Screenwriter: Spike Jonze
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Chris Platt, Matt Letscher, Portia Doubleday, Scarlett Johansson
Screened at: TriBeCa, NYC, 11/19/13
Opens: December 18, 2013
A cartoon appearing in a recent issue of the New Yorker magazine shows a man and a woman in a romantic restaurant, both looking at their hand-held phones, paying little attention to each other. This might be amusing if it weren’t so much a reflection of the truth. Look around (if you’re not presently glued to your BlackBerry) and you’ll see people in mid-conversation pausing to look at the little screens as though what is coming across digitally is more important than the human beings they’re talking to. “I’ve got to take this call,” is almost obsolete now. People currently break off their conversations in mid-sentence without an excuse to engage in texting, in sexting, or whatever distracts them from real human contact.
The harmful effects of technology provide the theme of Spike Jonze’s “Her,” one of the most pungent satires since Jason Reitman’s 2006 masterwork “Thank You for Smoking,” which featured a contest by lobbyists for the three legal agents of death—tobacco, alcohol, and gun—to see which poison is responsible for the most annual deaths. Nobody literally dies in Jonze’s take on digital insanity, but many a soul is left in limbo; heartbroken, lonely, and miserable for being jilted by electronic toys.
Jonze, whose conventional good looks belie his unconventional movies like “Being John Malkovich,” in which a puppeteer finds his way literally inside the head of the title character, displays a vivid sense of fantasy as expected this time around. Without condemning our digital age outright, he locates a group of people in Los Angeles who have lost their ability to relate to one another presumably because of their ever-present connection to small machines. While this is a mature work with terrific performances especially from Joaquin Phoenix in an Everyman role, “Her” bogs down now and then because the little instrument of destruction is not a full-bodied person but simply a voice that acts like a woman, responds with increasing love to its owner, and by emotionally reacting more and more like a real person ultimately drives its possessor to insane distraction.
Nonetheless, “Her” is a treat for the intelligent audience to which it is directed, a true original, yet another way that science fiction uses fantasy to afford us an entertaining look at our own time.
Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) has a job in an L.A. for BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, that does not look much advanced, his own role not unlike that of any writer for Hallmark Cards being to dictate handwritten letters to customers to express their love, their congratulations, or what-have-you, but do not have the gift of appropriate lyricism. Though seeming a regular guy who chats amiably with a co-worker, he is depressed by the breakup of his marriage to Catherine (Rooney Mara). Catherine accuses him of being unable to relate emotionally, but that changes when he meets Samantha (voice of Scarlett Johannson), who is really just a creation of Artificial Intelligence. Samantha is at Theodore’s beck and call, quickly responding to his chit-chat, reading his email for him, and growing emotionally just as Theodore is regressing. He has a successful blind date with a beautiful woman (Olivia Wilde), leaving her surprisingly in the lurch and, in the film’s funniest and most imaginative moments is given a human woman who acts out a male fantasy with Theodore by taking instructions from Samantha.
Jonze turns the entire silent film industry on its head by giving a starring role to a voice without a physical presence. Johannson wholly convinces with her seductive voice, being tender when called for though in at least one instance appearing to rebel against her role as a creative of A.I. rather than a full-fledged person. Humorous points include some video games which appear just slightly more advanced than the current crop, particularly one that gives or subtracts points from a player’s score by how well the participant takes on the task of being a good mother.
Flashbacks involving Theodore and Catherine in better times before the digital revolution went haywire, the entire ensemble doing a creditable job though strictly as a background to this largely two-hander. If we leave with a final thought, it’s an old one: Reach out and touch someone.
Rated R. 119 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – A-
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – B+