Her – Joaquin Phoenix finds love in an unlikely place in Spike Jonze’s futuristic tale

A journey inside the head of a famous actor (Being John Malkovich, 1999). A self-reflexive book adaptation (Adaptation., 2002). A boy on an adventure with huge, scary creatures (Where the Wild Things Are, 2009). These are the films that make up Spike Jonze’s strange world. Yet while Jonze’s work has always had this more wacky, outlandish side to it (even his various music videos are pleasingly bizarre), there is also another trait he uses in all of his work – a strong human element that helps to ground the abnormal in the realistic. No matter how out there his films are we always identify and sympathise with his main characters who might be in a peculiar situation, but who still have problems similar to the ones we face. Jonze’s latest film, Her (2013), also features another typical desolate Jonze character called Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a guy who drifts along in life without really living it, still reeling after a break-up with his ex-wife. Yet he finds help, in more ways than one, from a new operating system for his computer that prioritises things in his life and comes with its own appealing personality, his in the form of Samantha (the voice of Scarlett Johansson). Opening her new mind to the world opens his eyes too and they gradually start to develop feelings for each other. Yep, love really is powerful…and weird too.

Her (2013): Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore

It sounds strange to say, but this might be Jonze’s least bizarre and most conventional film he has made yet. Although set sometime in the future (he never explicitly specifies when) in which brightly-coloured furniture straight out of an IKEA catalogue furnishes all rooms and for some reason men wear very high-waisted Simon Cowell trousers, people also rely on gadgets and technology to get through the day. Does this last one sound familiar? Yep, it would seem that we’re not so far off this particular future already, Jonze using his script in part as a social commentary on how we all turn to technology when we should be connecting with other people (here we see people on their daily commute talking to their OS’s rather than each other). What really gives Her an air of realism though is Jonze’s clever writing and his choice of story – peel away the layers of sci-fi and this is at its core a love story, pure and simple. While this whole idea of the possibility of ‘digital love’ is there, Jonze actually portrays Theodore and Samantha’s relationship like any other normal one, it just so happens that they have a few more obstacles to overcome than others do. Jonze lets all the weirdness of their situation take a backseat and instead uses his story to show aspects that affect anyone who has ever been in a relationship – the love, the loss and all the bits in between. And for this reason Her is also wonderfully cathartic to watch.

Like Jonze’s other work, Her is also very funny at times, sometimes darkly so. It is also complete credit to Jonze’s writing how powerful some moments are, whether that be in a sad way, or in an uncomfortable and intense way – one scene puts us LITERALLY in Theodore and Samantha’s place and forces us to identify with one of them as…well, awkward stuff happens. It is from this moment on that you start to really connect to both characters and a point in the script that proves just how masterful Jonze’s writing really is.

Amy (Amy Adams) comforts Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix)

This identification we feel for the characters wouldn’t happen without a great central pair though. Joaquin Phoenix is superb. He is loveable and makes you feel an endless amount of sympathy for him as Theodore (while still showing that Theodore is not without his own faults). His wounded performance – all sad stares and gloomy expressions – makes you completely understand why he would fall in love with a character so vibrant as Samantha. Yet it is also Scarlett Johansson’s performance as the OS that enables us to see why love would blossom between them. You’d actually think that for her it would be much harder to leave an impression in this voice-only role, but her remarkable set of husky vocals draws you in and makes us fall in love with her too. She manages to create a personality for Samantha even though she is a faceless being, making her naïve and curious when Theodore first meets her and then more knowledgeable, mature and solemn as her intelligence and personality grows. To do all this in just a voice really is amazing.

Not only is Her beautifully written and a masterful commentary on love and life, Spike Jonze’s direction is also astounding throughout. Every shot is gorgeously composed, the images singing in every moment and setting the mood perfectly. It’s sometimes like a painting come to life. The soundtrack also builds up the atmosphere of the film brilliantly alongside the images. The score was composed by the band Arcade Fire and Owen Pallett, with additional music by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (she composed the magnificent ‘The Moon Song’ which Samantha and Theodore sing in the film). The songs, in particular those that are more elegant and moving, all match the subject matter perfectly and take us on a journey alongside Theodore and Samantha as their relationship slowly builds throughout Spike Jonze’s excellent story.

Theodore waits for his new OS, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), to come to ‘life’

Spike Jonze’s Her is a truly gorgeous film – an adorable love story that is genuinely moving (I was left in tears at the end) and that has a wonderful social commentary on our relationship with technology, as well as with each other. It is no wonder that Spike Jonze won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for his smart and affecting script. Beautifully shot and directed, elegantly written, with a poignant soundtrack and a fabulous cast, with a great lead in Joaquin Phoenix and another in Scarlett Johansson who creates an unforgettable character from just a voice performance. Forget the science-fiction and futuristic angle to the story, this is the most relevant film about love that you’ll ever see.


~ by square-eyed-geek on March 28, 2014.

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