Sunday, January 12, 2014
ALL THE LONELY PEOPLE: a review of "Her"
Written and Directed by Spike Jonze
**** (four stars)
Let's just get this whole thing started with the proverbial "bang"! If not for Director Steve McQueen's searing "12 Years A Slave," Writer/Director Spike Jonze's "Her" would be my number one favorite film of 2013 hands down. But hey, number two is still an outstanding place to rest so comfortably for a film that is this deeply conceived, executed and felt.
With only four feature films to his credit, Spike Jonze is precisely the artistic shot in the arm that 21st century cinema so desperately needs right now as his creative output is uniformly top tier. With "Being John Malkovich" (1999) and "Adaptation" (2002), his collaborations with Writer Charlie Kaufman, Jonze presented two dizzying and deliriously inventive films the very kind of which have not, and probably could not, be duplicated. Even better was his stunning, game-changing 2009 adaptation of Maurice Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are, in which Jonze gave us an extraordinary and deeply autumnal exploration into a child's emotional landscape that was as visually thrilling as it was so beautifully perceptive. Now, with the arrival of "Her," Spike Jonze has unleashed what I am reading is possibly his most personal film but is definitely his finest film to date and I truly hope that I am able to fully explain to you how transformative of a film experience seeing this film was for me.
"Her" is, and fully represents, the very kind of film that that would typically end up as being one of my favorite films of any year as it is a film that fully transcends its subject matter and primary conceit to becoming a film that is not solely about its characters and main storyline but is also a film about all of us sitting in the movie theater, all of us that co-exist in the world at this point in time. Yes, by now, I m certain that you may have heard the basic idea of the film-a man falls in love with his computer--but trust me, "Her" probes decidedly and profoundly deeper, unearthing a well spring of emotion that felt grueling, exhausting and by the film's end, the real world did indeed look a little different as my perceptions had been altered that powerfully. The theme of "humanity" will forever remain an important characteristic to seek within the movies I see in my life and Spike Jonze's "Her" is as impassioned plea for humanity as I have ever seen.
Set in an undetermined future Los Angeles society, "Her" stars Joaquin Phoenix, in yet another outstanding performance, as Theodore Twombley, a lonely, introverted man who lives alone and in a perpetual state of melancholy due to his impending divorce from his childhood sweetheart Catherine (Rooney Mara). Theodore earns his living working for a letter writing company, composing intimate letters for customers who find it impossible to fully express their feelings themselves. One day, and mostly on a whim to combat his seemingly endless depression, Theodore purchases a new computer operating system which is stored with an artificial intelligence that possesses the ability to speak and evolve like a human being. After deciding to give this new operating system a female identity, "Samantha," (richly and beautifully voiced by Scarlett Johansson) as she names herself, is born and the twosome form an instant connection. Over time, their relationship develops into a passionate love affair that awakens Theodore from his gloom, Samantha into an increasingly higher consciousness and propels both beings into an emotional odyssey into the deepest natures of love and interpersonal connection.
"Her" is the kind of film that may remind you of some films from the past but somehow Spike Jonze has realized a vision that is unlike anything I have quite seen before. Yes, there are dashes of Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968) here, Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" (1982) there and even some sprinkles of Steve Barron's "Electric Dreams" (1984), that music themed romantic comedy which told the story of a computer who falls in love with a human. But even moreso, "Her" exists very closely in the same film universe as movies like Kevin Smith's "Chasing Amy" (1997), Michel Gndry's "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind" (2004) and Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' stunning and sadly underseen "Ruby Sparks" (2012), movies that dare to explore the nature of love at its messiest, most confusing, confounding, turbulent, hard fought and agonizing. "Her" is a tone poem to emotional alienation, isolation and the difficulties of finding and maintaining new interpersonal connections, and therefore, it is a film that I often found to be very painful to sit through, at moments, even depressing (more on that later). But Spike Jonze's vision was so explicitly real that the film felt as if it was deeply conceived from the inside out, as if Jonze laid all of his nerve endings completely bare for us to view, experience and share what he may be perceiving the nature of love to be.
As I stated earlier, "Her" seems to be Spike Jonze's most personal film to date. In fact, I felt that it could almost be a companion film to Writer/Director Sofia Coppola's "Lost In Translation" (2003) of all films as Jonze and Coppola were once married to each other and the filmmaker character Giovanni Ribisi portrayed, the very one who is constantly leaving his lonely wife (played by Scarlett Johansson) behind, alone and adrift in Tokyo, in Coppola's film was rumored to be based on Spike Jonze! This piece of information made me feel that through Theodore Twombley's pain, we were possibly viewing Jonze's side of his unique love story, or at least the emotional aftermath of their divorce which features his sincere, earnest confessionals as to how he may have failed.
"Her" seems to be asking at points, why are the words "I love you," the three greatest words in our language, so often the most difficult words to say to each other. That fear of rejection, that fear of being misunderstood, that fear of enduring even one more instance of paralyzing emotional pain, the kind that may make us desire to retreat from any human contact lies at the very bruised and damaged heart of "Her." Within the story of Theodore, Jonze holds up a discomforting mirror to all of us as well as the film exists also as a cultural critique about our increasingly dependent relationship with technology, a relationship that continues to advance seemingly at the expense of the very traits that bind us together as human beings. .
"Her" takes place in the future, an unnamed time but visually resembles something shiny and excessively clean like "The Jetsons" but without the flying cars and robot maids. But, Jonze's future vision is clean to the point of anti-septic, and is one that belies a societal emotional wasteland filled with disconnection and emotional instability. In the film, our relationship with technology is such that people are unable to compose their own thoughts without outside aid from a faceless corporation. Jonze shows us a highly populated society in which everyone walks around with ear buds firmly in place, and heads faced downwards gazing at the computerized devices in their hands. At the opening of the film, we see Theodore and the people that surround him on the sidewalks and transportation systems, only acknowledging their devices as the computers speak to their respective users, scrolling through e-mails, and even selecting the proper music to fit the individual's moods for the day. While people are constantly talking, the speech is rarely projected towards another human, but only to the machine who sits without judgement, and only exists to serve and please. Sounds a little uncomfortably like right now in 2014 doesn't it?
The arrival of the new operating system, in which Samantha and others like her have been formulated, presents the next "evolutionary" step as Theodore, so overcome with mournfulness and romantic despair that reaching out towards, and even being seduced by that pleasant, frisky, helpful, understanding, non-judgmental voice inside the machine seems to be the easiest connection to make. Or is it?
"Her" very perceptively delves into the mystical power of the voice and how through only hearing a speaking voice, we are all seduced and ultimately conjure up fantasies of what the actual person who possesses the voice in question may be like if only we were to meet them face to face. To that end, with whom is Theodore falling in love with. The entity Samantha actually happens to be or a mere projection of his deepest wishes being projected back to him in that voice? Furthermore, we also know that Samantha is a digital creation, something that is indeed not human or in some respects, even real. But, Samantha's sense of consciousness continues to build and grow through her relationship with Theodore, thus blurring the lines of what is perceived to be real, especially in regards to what they are each feeling.
With that, "Her" deftly explores the levels of reality, perceptions of said reality as well as our intense projections, the kinds of which that can make relationships fail between humans and Jonze illustrates how it is even more precarious between humans and machines, escalating his story and future vision to surprising territories, to uncomfortable situations that I had not forseen, uncovering emotions I did not expect to feel. What is indeed our relationship with technology in 2014? Our smart phones, social networks and all? Is our world truly growing smaller because with a click of a button, we can connect across the world no matter where we are or are we growing increasingly disconnected as we are all riveted to our screens and the immediate, non-judgmental responses we receive from our varying technological systems? Like David Fincher's "The Social Network" (2010), Spike Jonze poses disturbing questions as his film also serves as a societal warning to our collective narcissism and our potential cultural solipsism.
"Her" is presented through a sumptuous visual and production design that firmly establishes its unique time, place and emotional landscape. The music score, composed and performed by Arcade Fire, also lends considerable weight and sorrow to the entire experience. And all of the film's performances of some of the finest the film year of 2013 has had to offer. Joaquin Phoenix, fresh from his explosively maddening turn in Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" (2012), has reconfigured his entire state of being once again in a performance that feels married to the words of Spike Jonze's original screenplay as his portrayal of Theodore is so emotionally convincing and recognizable that I do believe that if any of us have ever had our hearts broken (or even several times), the choices he makes are so sadly and compassionately understandable.
Scarlett Johansson is simply outstanding. I have read some press clippings as to how her performance is ineligible for awards nominations due to the fact tat she never appears on screen and if that is true, I hope the power-that-be seriously reconsider as her performance of Samantha is as three dimensional as the humans upon the screen. Her husky voice fills the movie theater just as sumptuously and attractively as it fills Theodore's head, heart and soul, making it completely easy to find ourselves as transported as he, and even desiring an unseen confidant who accepts you unconditionally. She is indeed funny, friendly, sexy, helpful and provides Theodore with an ever present companion that is as simultaneously Maternal and secretarial as it is also one of deep commitment, with the romance and eroticism that has eluded him. Johansson provides the film with as much of an urgently beating heart and pulsating soul as Phoenix, creating a film duet that is truly unforgettable
Not terribly long ago, I ventured into a neighborhood coffee shop for a latte and was taken aback from the sight I witnessed. This was a coffee shop that I have frequented for many years and it is a place that is typically filled with hearty conversations, laughter, and the clinking of glasses existing comfortably alongside those writing in their journals or doing homework on their laptops. But on this particular day, the coffee shop was utterly silent, aside from the music on the speakers and the noise from the coffee machines. Yet, the coffee shop was not empty. On the contrary, it was completely filled, with every table occupied but not one person was speaking to another human being on this particular day. Everyone was enveloped into their cell phones, laptops and headphones and it was so very odd, and more than little sad, to see a place of community transformed into one where every person was isolated in the worlds of their own makings.
That is the world Spike Jonze presents to us in "Her," a film about our relationship with technology that is urging us to not forget the characteristics that make us human beings, even when we are crippled with emotional pain. It is a romantic film true. But it is a brutally honest film that is also sharply satirical, erotically charged and I would like to think somewhat hopeful that our interpersonal connections cannot be deleted from our existence.
Spike Jonze's "Her" sits near the very top of my favorite films of 2013.