Review: Joaquin Phoenix in Spike Jonze’s “Her”

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Reasserting his place as one of America’s most original and inventive filmmakers, Spike Jonze has hand-crafted an electric dream that touches both the mind and the heart.

Director-writer: Spike Jonze

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Rooney Mara, Amy Adams, Olivia Wilde

Los Angeles, the near future. Theodore Twombly (Phoenix) is a lonely man struggling with a painful separation from his wife (Mara). Booting up his computer, he finds himself unexpectedly falling in love with the machine’s new operating system, “Samantha” (voiced by Johansson).

Spike Jonze is no stranger to the high concept, albeit with mixed results. Both Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, penned by Charlie Kaufman, spun surreal scenarios to thrilling effect, but he came unstuck with a Dave Eggers script that left Where the Wild Things Are floundering in overcooked neurosis. This time, Jonze is both writer and director, and the result is a film alive with deep, personal resonance—while not, thankfully, forgoing any of the filmmaker’s impish Jackass spirit.

It isn’t hard to imagine people in  love with their devices—look around you right now, it’s probably happening before your eyes— and Jonze nudges that scenario one step towards its obvious conclusion. Crafting a future world that’s terrifying in its homespun tweeness—Phoenix’s Twombly works in a handwritten letters firm, wears a moustache and dresses in woolen slacks—and refreshingly original in its conception of the future (there’s not a trace of the usual dystopian rot), Jonze’s film feels effortless because it doesn’t sweat the science fiction detail. The matter-of-factness with which Twombly falls head over digital heels with “Samantha”—and Jonze’s ear for offbeat comedy—makes the outlandish feel organic and plausible.

For all its surface dynamism, though, the beauty of Her is that Jonze is exploring age-old themes—the need for connection, beyond, say, the soulless void of social networking—and there’s real emotional power to his characters. He pulls off a precarious of high-wire act, one that balances earnest sentiment with playful intelligence, bending philosophical inquiry and warm-hued feelings into new, unlikely shapes.

Phoenix, meanwhile, just goes from strength to strength, trading the volcanic grandstanding of The Master for an equally impressive, interior—and essentially one-man—show acting against a box. Johansson, too, does more than just use her distinct smoky voice, taking Samantha somewhere genuinely sad: It’s too bad she won’t live, but then again— who does?

Verdict: Reasserting his place as one of America’s most original and inventive filmmakers, Spike Jonze has hand-crafted an electric dream that touches both the mind and the heart.

Originally published in Empire, February 2014

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