Filmmaker Spike Jonze doesn't make it easy in his latest film Her. He takes a fairly simple story, dresses it up in a realistically futuristic setting, and with the help of superb casting, creates a movie with such emotional impact that it feels like a kick in the head. More than once.
The film opens on an extreme close-up of Theo (Joaquin Phoenix), speaking directly into the camera, reading a love letter that sounds poignant and sweet. We come to realize that he's writing the letter on behalf of someone else -- he's a kind of professional Cyrano -- and that we've been watching him from the POV of a computer monitor, as though it were another person.
And that factors in heavily later, as lonesome Theo buys an operating system advertised as having artificial intelligence and the ability to learn. The OS assumes a female voice (Scarlett Johansson), and names herself Samantha. At first she is simply an efficient helper, but as she learns more about Theo and the world around him, she develops a personality as complex and emotionally rich as any human being. It follows naturally that Theo and Samantha build a strong attachment to one another.
At the same time, the movie deftly and believably handles the fallout of a failed marriage, two people who both love each other and can't have a conversation with one another without hurt. Theo frequently flashes back to scenes from his marriage, and while it's obvious that some key moments are left out -- the audience is smart enough to put the pieces together themselves -- the flashbacks cover their marriage from college through adulthood and into their separation.
Her shows us a plausible future where we all talk to ourselves, since computers respond to voice commands. A subway car is packed with people whispering and murmuring, but not to one another. Each person is in his or her own world, whether chatting with their computer, checking their email or tuning out to music. It's a world with a higher volume of background noise but a lower rate of in-person interaction. Theo is able to talk to Samantha without getting any strange looks at all.
(Skeptics have questioned the plausibility of a future Los Angeles that is so very white -- but ignore the landmarks and pretend it's Austin, where such high-tech saturation would be a given and the demographic imbalance isn't at all shocking.)
Her can be quirky and very funny at times, balancing the scenes of intimacy and pain. Theo's attempt at phone sex, early in the movie, was gaspingly hilarious (the other partner is voiced by Kristen Wiig). But it also pairs beautifully with a very different sex scene later in the film -- and then those contrast with yet another scene. Very little is wasted in this movie. Apart from a stretch about two-thirds in that seemed a little too long (but afterward made sense in context), the scenes in this movie fit like puzzle pieces.
Joaquin Phoenix is riveting, unsurprisingly, but Johansson also conveys a full range of character even though her voice is her only real presence. Supporting characters don't get much screentime, but the actors make their roles memorable, particular Amy Adams as Theo's sympathetic neighbor, Olivia Wilde as a blind date, Rooney Mara as Theo's ex and Jonze himself voicing a foul-mouthed videogame character.
Arcade Fire's score is brilliant, the movie looks gorgeous (I want Theo's apartment), and by the end it all seems believable. Her is the best film I saw in 2013, although it felt so steamrollingly intense that I'm not sure I'm up for a second viewing.
Austin connections: Former Austinite Steve Zissis (The Overbrook Brothers, Baghead) appears briefly in one scene. The Austin Film Critics Association gave Her its 2013 awards for Best Film, Best Original Screenplay and Best Score, plus a special award to Johansson for her voice-based performance.