Sunday, January 19, 2014

Finding Love in a most unusual way

I've always thought that the saying "There's nothing new under the sun," was only true in general, especially when it comes to the cinema. Yes, we've seen romantic comedies, political thrillers, war films, historical epics, etc. etc. before, but thanks to a lot of creative people, we are treated to new ways to tell these stories. In Her, writer/director Spike Jonze takes the time-honored story of the lonely guy and manages to create one of the most unique, charming and insightful films of this or recent years.

Her tells the story of Theodore Twombly, an insightful, funny man (Joaquin Phoenix) whose profession is writing deeply felt letters for customers at a company called The offices of this firm are immaculate, with spacious working quarters all done up in bright reds, pinks and pastels - no doubt to put the employees in a relaxing mood in order to promote their finest work (the production design of K.K. Barrett is quite eye-catching). There is a need for this company, the movie seems to be saying somewhat subconsciously, because most people are unable to express their inner feelings, as they spend too much time obsessed with technology, be it video games or the latest electronic gadgets designed to make communication easier with their fellow man.

Twombly is excellent at what he does, yet he can't seem to express his own inner emotions to real people; he is going through a divorce as we meet him. He has one female friend, a co-worker named Amy (Amy Adams) whom he can talk to, but that's about it. He spends a lot of time at home, usually with technology; one of his delights is playing a video game with a foul-mouthed ghost that has more personality than he does. As for sex, he resorts at one point to a phone call with a woman who simulates an orgasm and asks him to do some rather kinky things.

Notice the orange, pink and brown colors that make up the world of the not-too-distant future.

Clearly, Theodore needs something new in his life and he finds it when he purchases an operating system - OS1 - that provides the user with a virtual assistant; in this case, it is a "woman" named Samantha who is the voice that will communicate with Theodore and help him organize his email and, as it turns out, his life in general. Scarlett Johansson, provides the voice of Samantha, and she's wonderful at this role, as she's smart, sexy, funny and unpredictable (what red-blooded man wouldn't be interested in her?) 

At first, Samantha does the menial tasks that she is trained to do (she mentions that she can read a book in 1/200th of a second), but soon, she expresses her feelings toward Theodore. Though he's a little unsure at first, it doesn't take him long to do the same for her. He truly is in love.

What I admire about this film is the world that Spike Jonze gives us. When Theodore lets his co-workers know that he's having a relationship with his operating system, they accept it and want to know more about his new love. Jonze comments on how normal technology is in our lives, so this sort of relationship doesn't seem out of place. The very fact that Theodore is at his happiest in his life when he talking to Samantha is a clever analysis of how phony face-to-face conversations have become in our world - how many people have anything truly clever to say anymore when faced with everyday dialogue with friends and colleagues? Indeed, Theodore, who is so talented when writing letters for someone else he's never even met, only opens up his true feelings when speaking to his operating system. (In a clever piece of business, he purchases a pocket-sized computer with a small oval opening, which represents an eye, so Samantha can "see" the real world for herself. It's Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey, but in a more personal, sensitive approach).

Joaquin Phoenix's performance as Theodore is a wonder, as he gives us a man who is vulnerable, confused, at times happy, often sad. Given the uniqueness of this story, this is a challenging role and Phoenix delivers one of his best performances, one that is 180 degrees opposite from the dominating individual he portrayed in last year's The Master.

Credit also to director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema, whose soft-light, slightly dreamy lighting creates the perfect tone for this slightly futuristic look. This is an entirely different vista than the one the Swiss-born cinematographer gave us in 2011's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a film that was graced with harsh office lighting and dimly lit residences. Here is a supremely talented craftsman at the height of his talent.

But of course, this is the baby of Spike Jonze, who's directed such wonderfully irreverent films as Adaptation (2002) and Being John Malkovich (1999). Both of those films were written by someone else, but here Jonze wrote the screenplay and it's both a touching love story as well as a biting social commentary. His direction is sensitive, as he presents us with all the ironies and romantic inspirations of the story without being too blunt.

At one point Samantha tells Theodore, "I'm evolving just like you." Their relationship has to grow or it will die and it's a key to understanding this sincerely-felt tale. Real life as we know it today is bittersweet, so why should it be any different in the future?

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