Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is going through the final stages of a divorce from his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara). He’s depressed and seems to be pouring all his feeling out at his job writing personal letters for people who apparently lack the ability to express themselves on paper. He’s very good at his job and the office receptionist Paul (Chris Pratt) is one of his biggest fans. Despite work going well, Theodore is painfully unhappy and depressed. He hasn’t dated much since the end of his marriage and his friends Amy and Charles (Amy Adams and Matt Letscher), a married couple who live in the same apartment building as Theodore, set him up on a blind date. It doesn’t go particularly well and afterward Theodore discusses his dating and other problems with Samantha (voice of Scarlett Johansson), the computer operating system he recently installed. Samantha is an artificial intelligence that learns and adapts to the user based on experience. She can open and send emails, make dinner reservations, scan the web for news stories and other mundane tasks. She also has a warm and friendly personality and is, of course, a good listener to Theodore’s problems. As they converse and Samantha becomes more experienced, Theodore begins to have real feelings for her…it…whatever. Samantha seems to be experiencing similar emotions as well. The two begin to be very intimate with each other in a way that is usually reserved for flesh-and-blood people. Apparently, this version of the OS is having a similar effect on others who use it. After Amy and Charles break up, she begins a friendship with her OS. Theodore has never been happier; but, as with any relationship, there are bumps along the way.
“Her” is a unique, bizarre and interesting film from a unique, bizarre and interesting film maker: Spike Jonze. Audiences expect nothing less from the man responsible for “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation” and “Where the Wild Things Are” and his films are usually in the talk leading up to the Academy Awards nominations as well as racking up lots of honors on the film festival circuit. “Her” is no exception as it is up for the Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay and Best Original Song Oscars. I know the film is motion picture art as Jonze has taken a simple story and turned it on its ear, getting riveting performances from Phoenix, Johansson, Adams and others. Sadly, I didn’t find the film very entertaining.
Jonze has a knack for either finding or writing unusual material and then adding his own spin. “Her” is no exception as the movie has odd camera cuts to innocuous images and, at one point, a black screen for several seconds. All of this is supposed to be a metaphor of some type but all it did for me was pull me out of the story and make me wonder what Jonez was doing. “Her” is also constantly telling us how Theodore feels by the lighting of the scene. When he’s depressed, the set is lit rather darkly or in muted, grey tones. When he’s feeling good, there’s light everywhere or we’re in a snowy climate. It all felt rather ham-fisted since he has such a talented actor as Mr. Phoenix as his lead.
Phoenix does a great job of letting us know how Theodore feels…perhaps too good a job. The character’s depression weighs him down like an anchor. As he walks through the streets of Los Angeles in one of his blue moods, he shuffles along like he’s wading through wet cement. He sighs and stares and mopes about like a teenage boy after his first crush dumps him. The character is going through a divorce he doesn’t want and the sadness is understandable; however, Phoenix lays it on so thick you wonder why anyone would have anything to do with him in any setting, romantic or otherwise. Jonez makes sure we get a good look at this sad-sack character by putting the camera in Phoenix’s face as often as possible. If you suffer from claustrophobia, you may want to prepare yourself as you’ll often feel like you’re sharing a phone booth with Theodore.
Despite his playing the character as if he’s one step away from slitting his wrists, Phoenix also manages to make him a decent man with legitimate sadness over the loss of his marriage. Phoenix convincingly conveys his joy as the relationship with Samantha continues as well. It’s a difficult performance to carry off without looking fake in either the character’s sadness or happiness. Phoenix manages to do this. The rest of the cast is great as well with special kudos going to Scarlett Johansson. Samantha is probably as well rounded a character as you’ll find in movies today. She’s honest, warm, sweet, funny, and helpful along with many of the other good things one looks for in a mate. She also has the weaknesses and foibles of any person in a relationship with bouts of petty jealousy, doubt and a mild dose of paranoia. There’s even at one point a desire to break free and explore without Theodore. Without having a physical presence on screen, Johansson manages to make a huge impact simply with her voice. The performance is all the more remarkable when you consider she didn’t originate the part. Another actress voiced Samantha during shooting but was replaced in post-production. Johansson had to fill the necessary amount of time with her lines and still manage to bring all the emotion of the role. It’s quite a feat.
Sadly, the great performances and interesting premise don’t manage to overcome the quirky nature of the storytelling and the overbearing sense of dread that the character of Theodore exudes. Perhaps in the hands of a director like Steven Spielberg we would have gotten a lighter film with more joy and less depression. As it stands, “Her” is a deep-dive into the abyss of despair that suffocates any entertainment it might have brought.
“Her” is rated R for language, brief graphic nudity and sexual content. We see a nude pregnant woman who is touched on the breasts by a pair of male hands. There are a couple of instances of graphic sexual talk between characters as they engage in this film’s version of cybersex. Foul language is fairly common.
Spike Jonze got his start directing music videos for acts like the Beastie Boys, Sonic Youth, R.E.M. and Weezer. His work had a unique style that got the attention of Hollywood and opened doors to the world of movies. His approach is not everyone’s cup of tea and for me “Her” is an example of this. I enjoyed the performances and the concept but the odd nuances and heavy-handed sadness of the main character took all the joy out of a film that should be right down my alley.
“Her” gets two guitars out of five.
There’s only one new film this week so I’ll throw in a few recent releases and Oscar contenders to make it interesting.
I, Frankenstein—Set in a dystopic present where vigilant gargoyles and ferocious demons rage in a battle for ultimate power, Victor Frankenstein's creation Adam (Aaron Eckhart) finds himself caught in the middle as both sides race to discover the secret to his immortality.
American Hustle—The story of brilliant con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), who along with his equally cunning and seductive British partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) is forced to work for a wild FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). DiMaso pushes them into a world of Jersey powerbrokers and mafia that’s as dangerous as it is enchanting.
August: Osage County—The strong-willed women of the Weston family’s lives have diverged until a family crisis brings them back to the Midwest house they grew up in, and to the dysfunctional woman who raised them.
Dallas Buyers Club—In mid-1980s Texas, electrician Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) is stunned to learn that he has AIDS. Though told that he has just 30 days left to live, Woodroof refuses to give in to despair. He seeks out alternative therapies and smuggles unapproved drugs into the U.S. from wherever he can find them.
The Wolf of Wall Street—In 1987, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) takes an entry-level job at a Wall Street brokerage firm. By the early 1990s, while still in his 20s, Belfort founds his own firm, Stratton Oakmont. Together with his trusted lieutenant (Jonah Hill) and a merry band of brokers, Belfort makes a huge fortune by defrauding wealthy investors out of millions.
Stan’s Choice—Stan sees and reviews any film of his choice currently in theatres.
Release dates are subject to change and not all films may be shown in Knoxville, TN.
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