Tuesday, February 4, 2014

IS “her” IT? OR JUST A TALENTED FLASH?

Joaquin  Phoenix copes with “her,” an intuitive operating system that loves him.
Reviews in this current series include "Saving Mr. Banks," "American Hustle," "The Butler," “Nebraska.” “Dallas Buyers Club,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Blue Jasmine,”  “Captain Phillips” and “Inside Llewyn Davis.”   Check them out and add your comments.

By Dominique Paul Noth


Step too hard in one direction and writer-director Spike Jonze  could have concocted a derivative   “Dr. Strangelove” satire on society’s self-deceptive rush toward destructive trust  of technology.

Too much the other way and it would become just a creepy romance  about a lonely guy jilted in real-life and falling for a bodiless computer system he jokes with, flirts with, relies on and even takes to bed.  

To describe “her” either way (retaining the e e cummings no-capitalization device made famous by the poet and pointedly kept “her”  by the film) might prevent audiences from even going. Or from  recognizing that,  if Jonze could have pulled it off, this was an innovative imaginative concept and darned provocative.  Yes,  it is a needed reflection on modern man’s emotional isolation within an inviting  drone-screen-cellphone environment. Yet “her” emerges almost maniacally devout in its vision, where it should be more a carnival mirror than a cult treatise.

What keeps us long in the game are the great humanistic elements– an expert team of casually  blending actors, an excellent ear for the cadence of modern dialog, and a sort of sad recognition of the aspirations for love in all of us.

But while Jonze walks the line between the sci-fi extremes, we still see the lines and question the unfolding. There is too much of that Narada style New Age music treated as the ultimate in human creativity. In deliberately dark photography or suggestive murmurings, there are overdoses of Jonze’s throw-away repartee, too many somnoletic revelations while dozing off.  (The sleep state is wondrously restful but it’s called sleepwalking for a reason.)

And are we to take seriously that there is great artistic virtue hidden in Theodore Twombly because he works for a website writing personal letters about the lives of other people, letters so touching that his boss adores him and a publisher wants to buy his work? Is that just an observation on how we all live vicariously these days? Or is that really supposed to be sufficient justification of his rapport with both humanity on the streets and the computer operating system he becomes jealous of? 

There’s too much walking the beach, dancing through the mall, or drinking until giddy. But understand, these are the necessary humanizing devices inserted in the script. Without these moments, and  others validating his sensitivity and value as a human being, we might dismiss him as a jerk. The actors work mightily and the editing maneuvers craftily to keep Twombly from seeming remotely lost in technology, to make more believable the concept of a guy falling for his smart phone – but man,  what a SMART phone!

Something else helps. The voice may be bodiless, but we mentally impose a body for 
Samantha – the actress playing her and not so coincidentally the No. 1 hit on the Internet sex image parade, Scarlett Johanssen. (Hey, the young audience thinks, that Twombly ain’t so dumb!)

In case we miss it, the movie even inserts a blonde Samantha surrogate who looks like Johanssen (Portia Doubleday, no kidding, that’s the actress’ name). Even the computer realizes this was a dumb idea. Wish the filmmaker had as well.


Amy Adams plays Phoenix’s understanding friend in “her.”
This is not fair to Johanssen, because in the breathy pauses and natural beats of Samantha, she may actually be providing some of her finest, most believable acting, even if invisibly orchestrated by Jonze to fit the breathing and acting patterns of  Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore.

I’ve often thought of Phoenix as overrated, a sort of mannered Brando echo of naturalism. But this is an exceptional controlled acting job, making us root for the romance by creating a human puppy dog of willing belief, hypnotized by and yet questioning the bodiless relationship.  His commitment to Samantha is balanced by hesitant questioning of why “spooning” with an absent her is so pleasurable. He even revisits  (a smart touch by Jonze) his failed marriage and desire for life-form sexuality. Rooney Mara captures well the alluring yet bitter ex, and Olivia Wilde turns niftily from the too perfect rebound date to the too desperate huntress for the perfect catch.

Phoenix  carries the audience through a lot of behavior that traditionalists might balk at and young Net acolytes might relish. He is clearly enamored of ear bugs and  virtual video,  deeply into porn images (but  using a pregnant soap star, which is a character hint) and phone sex (which curiously echoes his later sex with Samantha).  Sick as that may sound in cold words, it  is one of the film’s canny observations that he is not much different than the rest of us.

Phoenix has a screen anchor in the brilliant rapport and acting affinity provided by  Amy Adams (is there anything this actress can’t do?) as the friend who understands his obsession and deals brightly with her own.


The ending, which I won’t give away, syncs with the human vs. machine issues,  with computers that get too smart for their creators yet are stuck in the same existentialist databases. 

There was a danger in the early reviews at the New York Film Festival of overpraising Jonze because of the boldness of the journey.  I think there are  diversionary elements that even e e cummings would consider pretentious.  But  credit Jonze with the intellectual courage to contemplate the near future and a comprehensive grasp of cinematic tools. 



Olivia Wilde is the date that starts out fascinating before events change.
More than 45 years ago  I was part of a panel of notable science fiction writers and semiologists discussing  Stanley Kubrick’s “2001” and other space movies. The argument typically turned to what is the best science fiction film, and more typically to defining what is a science fiction story. Obviously any film that relies on something not actually known or  yet fully in existence qualifies, but was not just space journeys untaken or asteroids not quite hit to these experts. It’s  where medical research, robotics  or computer  inventions may be headed but are not quite there. (We know a Samantha is not yet  here – just talk to any phone system, Siri or so-called intuitive OS these days and be deeply disappointed.) 


The surprising winner in our debate was a movie people didn’t even think of as science-fiction – “The Man in the White Suit” (1951) starring Alex Guinness and directed by Alexander Mackendrick. It imagines an indestructible white cloth invented by a chemist that sends the world garment industry into convulsions.  “her” is actually more such  a comedic observation than a life-shattering epic.  If only Jonze could have stuck closer to Guinness than to H.A.L.

The author was film and drama critic, then senior editor for features at The Milwaukee Journal, then a leader in online news forums and editor for a decade of the Milwaukee Labor Press. He now writes regularly for several publications on politics and culture, including occasional theater reviews and historical pieces at thirdcoastdaily.