Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Love bytes: “Her”

I was more interested in seeing “Her” than I originally thought. Sure, Spike Jonze did the excellent “Being John Malkovich,” and I liked “Adaptation” plenty, too. But really … what kind of sick, twisted person casts Scarlett Johansson in a movie for only her voice?

Actually, “Her” has a few things going for it. In addition to Spike and Scarlett, you have Public Kook No. 1, Joaquin Phoenix, playing another semi-outcast with issues – in this case a lonely fella named Theo whose job is writing heartfelt letters for other people. He’s good at that but not so much with real-life ladies, hanging mostly with a platonic pal played by a dowdy Amy Adams. (A side-by-side of her look here with the one in “American Hustle” would be fascinating.)

Did I mention this takes place in the near future, when a mustachioed Phoenix has the option of buying a new super-intuitive talking operating system? That’s where Lady Scarlett comes in as the sultry-voiced Samantha. Oh, she’s no vixen to start, simply a female who really “gets” our hero. It’s uncanny and unsettling to start, but before long Joaquin is into it. And who wouldn’t be? Between going through a divorce and failing to connect with blind dates and anonymous phone sex partners alike, a guy can be excused for thinking the face and body – or even having a face and body – just might not matter when a woman truly invades your brain.

Of course, if only things stopped there. Alas, the mental connection becomes emotional, fed not only by Theo’s melancholy but Samantha’s curiosity about what it’s like to be human. Her evolution in conjunction with that of their relationship soon begs a few questions of where this will go, and “Her” does a nice job of adapting the usual peaks and valleys of a relationship to this new XY-OS dynamic.

Any who has been paying attention knows Phoenix is the real deal as an actor. I won’t pretend he killed it in “SpaceCamp” – and really, who could compete with jumpsuited Lea Thompson – but he was starting to bring it as early as “8MM” and “Gladiator” more than a dozen years ago. Then came “Walk the Line” and “The Master,” two different roles but ones I thought he inhabited fully. Theo in “Her” is more subdued but no less agonized, and Phoenix handles it just about perfectly.

And he didn’t have to use only his voice! Johansson’s curves are sorely missed, but I found myself hanging on every word that came through Theo’s earpiece. Sure, Samantha sounds just like a normal woman, but Jonze’ script does a good job of regularly and subtly reminding you she’s not. It’s harmless at first, but eventually Samantha shows her fair share of confusion and pain as well.

The rest of the cast is solid. Along with Adams, there’s Chris Pratt as the goofy secretary at Theo’s office and Rooney Mara as Theo’s soon-to-be ex-wife; after glimpsing her in flashbacks, watching her lunch with Theo becomes rather painful in short order. Olivia Wilde is always a treat – this time as the blind date – and see if you can catch a bit part by Kristen Wiig.

In the end, though, this is a love story about two “people,” and Jonze impressively follows the arc of their relationship to a conclusion that is not unexpected but still layered and inventive. Not only was I pleased, but I appreciated the way this relationship made me think. If only my Commodore 64 had understood the preteen me as well. Life could have been so different.