‘Her’ movie review: Joaquin Phoenix in Spike Jonze’s not-so-distant sci-fi

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One of the unlikeliest romance movies ever made is also one of the most affecting: Spike Jonze’s Her treats its lead character’s relationship with his operating system not as a strange or comic premise, but as an entirely realistic and only slightly futuristic affair. This is a fully-endearing, beautifully realized love story, and one of 2013’s finest films. 

In the film’s introductory scenes, we’re introduced to a future Los Angeles (year unspecified) with a wink and a nod from the director; it’s close enough to our world, with modern-age issues exaggerated enough to provide not only a smile, but also genuine insight to a world where we interact less and less with each other, and more and more with our devices.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Theodore Twombly, an introvert who lives by himself and seems to have trouble maintaining relationships. He isn’t alone: everyone he walks by on the street is involved in their own world without experiencing the reality that surrounds him. Seemingly based on the contemporary hipster – love the mustache, and those thick-rimmed glasses – Phoenix’s look here is picture-perfect. 

As the film opens, we hear Theodore narrate a beautiful love letter to his computer, which types it up in a perfectly calligraphed manner. But Theodore isn’t writing to his own lover; no, he just works for BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, a company that writes, well, beautifully handwritten love letters for those that just don’t have the time – or the ability – to do so themselves. We can easily imagine a company like this existing, if it doesn’t already.

Perhaps a hopeless romantic, Theodore hasn’t had much luck with the ladies; ex-wife Catharine (Rooney Mara) left him because he was emotionally distant, and still seems to bear a grudge against him in a heartrending scene they share together. Old friend and neighbor Amy (Amy Adams) seems to have a good rapport with Theo, but is involved with someone else. And a blind date (Olivia Wilde) bails on him for being “creepy”.

But things change after Theo brings home a brand-new artificial intelligence operating system. After he boots it up, he chooses a female voice (Scarlett Johansson) to interact with; “she” names herself Samantha, and soon she’s one of the biggest parts of his life; a natural relationship emerges (Samantha goes through his email, plans his schedule, and caters to his needs), and soon Theodore discovers it isn’t so unusual for someone to “date” their O.S.

Phoenix, back from the dead after years of I’m Still Here weirdness, has delivered two of the most memorable performances in recent years here and as Freddie Quell in 2012’s The Master. Johansson wouldn’t be the first thought for a voice-only role, but she’s terrific, too: physical presence or no, we can buy falling in love with that personality. 

Her is only Jonze’s fourth film as director – following Being John Malkovich and Adaptation (which were written by Charlie Kaufman) and the Maurice Sendak adaptation Where the Wild Things Are – and it’s the first from an original screenplay by Jonze, for which he deservedly won an Academy Award. 

Funny and touching, romantic but thought-provoking, sweet but maybe slyly cynical, this is a fully engaging and truly unclassifiable film that should appeal to just about all viewers. Bolstered by a terrific original soundtrack from Arcade Fire and gorgeously faded, retro-future Instagram cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema (The Fighter), Her is truly something special.

Her

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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