Friday, November 15, 2013

AFI Fest 2013: "Her"

Director: Spike Jonze
Runtime: 120 minutes

The future is a sleek, dark, sterile world. At least, that's what your average near-future dystopia would tell you. This being the case, director Spike Jonze deserves a lot of credit for his simple, ultimately warm look at where our society is headed, with his new romance Her. He also deserves credit for, in his first outing as a writer, delivering such a funny, heartfelt, and empathetic look at love and human relationships in our increasingly tech-obsessed world. 

Despite lonely protagonist Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), Jonze approaches Her by doing a complete 180 from his previous film, 2009's Where the Wild Things Are. That film took a children's book and infused it into a tale filled with poignant, soulful mourning. By contrast, this tale of adults and their romantic lives is mostly a light comedy. 

Rather than opt for a future filled with nihilistic heaviness, Jonze and his collaborators have dreamed up a world filled with warmth. Rather than oppressive grays, Her is shot and designed to incorporate a wide range of soft, vibrant pastels. Some of Hoyt van Hoytema's shot compositions showcase the towering skyscrapers of Los Angeles, but the film is ultimately concerned with intimacy. 

For Theodore, that intimacy comes not from another person, but from a futuristic new operating system. Once activated, the program develops a personality, that grows as its spends more time with the given customer. Theodore's OS, for example, gives herself the name Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), and quickly becomes her own strong-willed personality. In line with the film's notions of simplicity, the artificial intelligence in Her takes no physical form. There are Blade Runner-esque androids. There's only the voice.

While Jonze gets to craft scenes and images, and Phoenix has room to visibly express himself, Johansson is left with only her voice. She's Her's make it or break it element, and thankfully, she succeeds with flying colors. Though she came to prominence in roles that emphasized emotional minimalism (Girl with a Pearl Earring, Lost in Translation), Johansson proves she's capable of creating a richly textured character without even appearing on screen. Jonze's script only helps the performance. He gives Samantha room to be her own person. Though she's technically there to be a voice for Theodore's computer, Her's progression makes her every bit as well rounded as her "owner," even though she comes into the movie with no background or baggage. 

Likewise, Amy Adams' Amy is also given room to have her own life. For a movie ostensibly about a man falling in love with his computer, Her's women are refreshingly independent. Though they have moments to comfort Theodore, Jonze writes them as full-bodied beings with more to do than act as emotional sounding boards for a man. Even Rooney Mara, as Theodore's ex-wife Catherine,  is never simplified or demonized. Though most of Catherine's scenes are silent flashbacks, Jonze never robs her of a voice. The reason for her split from Theodore is given a fair shake, with both parties shown enduring some form of emotional struggle. 

As valuable as the women are, however, Her is built on both Theodore and Samantha. And for a couple who never visibly share the screen, Phoenix and Johansson work wonders together. Phoenix throws himself into the goofy, aloof Theodore with the same force he gave to the tormented and animalistic Freddie Quell in last year's The Master. Despite being known largely for playing men riddled with demons, Phoenix makes for a surprising comedic and romantic lead. 

The performances and direction only heighten as the film dips into deeper territory. Her is, somewhat contrary to the marketing, a comedy, but Jonze never forgets to push beneath the surface charm. Yet rather than become fully dramatic in the later portions, it's perhaps more accurate to say that the film becomes empathetic. Jonze wrings some beautifully romantic and heartfelt moments out of his sci-fi laced scenario, yet there's never an emotional heaviness behind it. In fact, the film's few uncomfortable moments come when seemingly dramatic scenes are suddenly punctuated with obviously intentional comedy. You enjoy the comedy, but simultaneously can't help but wish that a serious beat had simply been allowed to settle and take root. 

Her isn't so much a searing study of human relationships as it is a gently comforting, though ultimately lighthearted romance. It's easy enough to dismiss Jonze's tone as nothing but frivolity. The film's lightness is underscored by moments of deep feeling that speak for themselves though restrained direction and beautiful performances. Her is a gorgeous technical package (with van Hoytema's cinematography taking best in show honors) ,but it would be nothing without committed performances lending some real soul to its deceptive lightness. In Phoenix and Johansson, however, Jonze has found a perfect pair around which to build his singular vision of our rapidly deepening relationship with technology. 

So many films have tried tackling society's progression with heavy-handed seriousness. Her, on the other hand, sees fit to view the future with guarded optimism and a lovely sense of hope, despite the inevitable complexities that arise along the way. The journey into the future is uncertain, but for Spike Jonze, it's humanity's constant needs that are the real driving force behind society's developments. As it turns out, those are more impressive than any grandiose advancements in technology or special effects. 

Grade: B+/A-

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