Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Essence of Her

This past weekend, I went to see another of 2013's Oscar nominated films, Her. This is the "science fiction romantic comedy-drama" from quirky writer-director Spike Jonze. It may be a hodgepodge of genres, but it's based on a very straight-forward premise: in an unspecified future, a man falls in love with the sentient operating system he installs on his computer.

Spike Jonze began his feature film career directing movies written by Charlie Kaufman, and the "meta" quality of films like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation definitely made a mark. Though Her doesn't pervasively flirt with the fourth wall as those films did, there's still something about the movie that slyly winks at the audience.

The romantic story of Her is played completely straight. The main character falls truly in love with his operating system, Samantha, and Samantha for her part is portrayed as an utterly realistic woman who happens to lack a body. The two express real emotions. And yet I found that I myself was never getting caught up in them. For a romantic movie that was generally working well and playing the right story notes, I found it engendered surprisingly little emotion.

And so the most meta level of Her is that it keeps the audience in its own head the entire time. The intellect is always engaged, even while the heart isn't. I was very much aware of when a given moment was being played for a metaphor, or another moment was being manufactured through directorial trickery. And most of all, when the main character reached a point in the film where he began to question himself and question the nature of love, the thoughts he voiced were exactly those the film was putting in the minds of the audience.

The performances in the film are generally good. Joaquin Phoenix is sympathetic as the awkward Theodore. Amy Adams is actually more real and vulnerable here than in her more lauded role in American Hustle. Olivia Wilde and Rooney Mara are each good in the single scene each of them has. But of course, all the acting talk about this film surrounds Scarlett Johansson, in her voice-only role as Samantha. She does create a believable person who is never visualized, and she does make the central conceit of the film work -- though I would often find myself put off a bit by her excessive use of vocal fry tones. (What can I say? If the voice is all I have to focus on, I'm going to focus on it a lot more.)

I'd hoped to be more swept up in the strange world of Her, but at least it was intellectually stimulating. I'd call it a B overall. It's a solid enough movie, though for me, it wouldn't have made the Oscar cut.

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