Note: This movie is a lot more sexually explicit than the trailers have been letting on. While that’s not a problem for me, or for a lot of people, if you don’t like sexually explicit content, this movie might not be for you. On with the review.
When I reviewed Blue is the Warmest Colour for my own blog (an absolutely fascinating movie that, for reasons I won’t go into, did not appear on my top 10), I lamented the fact that it was nearly 3 hours long, but was focused entirely on a single romance, without anything in the way of subplots or side characters, which made it feel overlong and slow. If I’d seen Her at that point, I’d have been able to point to it as a counter example. Her is almost entirely devoted to a single relationship at the center, but it populates the rest of it’s plot with a creative, unique world and interesting side characters, which helps it feel much more alive and engaging.
The plot, for those of you who haven’t seen the trailers, is about Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a depressed and recently divorced man living in the not-too-distant future, who makes a living writing love letters for other people. Feeling lonely, he elects to get a new OS for his computer that is supposedly a sentient AI. The OS turns out to be Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), with whom he quickly bonds, their relationship eventually taking a turn for the romantic.
You might expect what amounts to a romantic comedy to skip over the larger implications of a plot that involves fully sentient AI being invented, lest it lose it’s focus on the central couple. Of course this movie has Spike Jonze directing, late of the unspeakably brilliant Adaptation and Being John Malkovich (the latter of which is one of my all time favorite movies) and he’s more than up to the challenge of showing the way these inventions have changed the world without changing its incredibly tight focus. Elements such as the way different people react to Theodore and Samantha’s relationship and what amounts to people fetishizing their kind of relationship arrive on screen fully formed and weave their way naturally into the narrative. In a lot of ways that’s what makes this movie feel so big and real; it’s one of the biggest and most important stories in human history told through a tiny window, where we only catch glimpses of it.
The screenplay spends a lot of time meditating on the nature of love, with more than a little of a deconstruction of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl in the 3rd act. After all, if Samantha is (as the movie establishes) literally created just for Theodore, can their relationship be considered real? But, if Samantha does actually pass the Turing Test (look it up), then what separates it from any other long distance relationship? And…look, it’s not my job to deconstruct the movie for you, go see it and draw your own conclusions.
The actors are all being called upon to give very offbeat performances, and they all excel. Joaquin Phoenix is still in the middle of his career rehabilitation (which started with The Master, another fantastic movie that no one went to see) and he gives a very strange performance here, alternating between selling his character’s flat detachment when he’s sad and incredible joy when he’s happy. Like Sandra Bullock in Gravity, much of the time he’s called upon to perform by basically talking to himself, which is incredibly hard to do, but he does fantastically.
Johansson is another clear standout; it takes a lot of guts to take one of the most fabulously beautiful women in Hollywood and have her play a character who’s just a voice (those of you who are hoping for a Krieger style hologram girl are gonna be disappointed) and her vocal performance is good enough that I wish there was an Oscar for voiceover work.
Secondary performances from Amy Adams and Rooney Mara are great as well, although Adams’ performance isn’t quite as impressive as the last movie I saw with Phoenix and Adams in it. And I can’t let this review pass without mentioning Kristen Wiig as one of the most bizarrely hilarious cameos of the year.
If it has a flaw, it’s in an awkward bit of pacing in the 3rd act. The movie feels like it’s winding down, only to bring a new thru line to what winds up being the finale. It’s not really too jarring, since it does play into some elements brought up earlier, but I honestly thought the credits were about to roll. Good thing they didn’t, as the eventual ending is easily superior to the one I thought was coming.
Her is a movie that almost certainly would have been on my top 10 of 2013, had it been playing anywhere near me before January 1st, and it holds the distinction of being quite a bit more digestible to an audience who might not like bleak stories and unlikable characters. It might not be quite the equal of Being John Malkovich or Inside Llewyn Davis, but it’s an excellent film in it’s own right, and well worth your time and attention.
Elessar is a 23 year old Alaskan born cinephile and you have no idea how hard it was to find pictures from this movie that weren’t just Joaquin Phoenix.
– unique story and screenplay
– richly written, well thought out characters
– fantastic acting
– slightly awkward third act
– feels a bit short