Her -- When "Being John Malkovich" was released in 1999, the film’s bold originality and disregard for traditional filmmaking made it easy to consider it the first movie of the 21st century.
After all, both the film’s director, Spike Jonze, and its screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, proved equally unencumbered by the restrictions of mainstream commercial filmmaking. Jonze shrewdly chose a straightforward visual style to balance out the highly surreal flourishes of Kaufman’s brilliant and highly imaginative screenplay.
It created the perfect combination, a movie both experimental and accessible at the same time. As a result, it felt as if "Being John Malkovich" was being projected from another universe entirely, and as if filmmaking itself was being reborn for the new century.
Jonze’s latest film, "Her," is officially the first project entirely written by his own hand, and similarly possesses the unshakable feeling of peering directly into the future. Considering that the film is set in the near future certainly contributes to this atmosphere. However, it is also Jonze’s perceptive exploration of our current culture’s reliance and obsession with modern technology that gives it such a prescient atmosphere -- so much so that this remarkable film can also be viewed as a cautionary tale.
Frequently such high-minded science fiction concepts can result in overly cerebral or insufferably preachy movies. However Jonze’s brilliance lies in couching his ideas in the romance of an old-fashioned love story, albeit an unconventional one between a human being and the voice from his computer operating system.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a lonely greeting card writer whose profession involves fabricating heartfelt sentiments for people he doesn’t even know. Stuck in the aftermath of a painful break-up, Theodore finds the lure of a new computer operating system that features a voice tailor-made for your own personality an undeniable proposition.
Theodore soon finds his computer and its corresponding voice "Samantha" (Scarlett Johansson) is providing the emotional needs that his current life lacks as the relationship grows and changes in ways that prove both emotionally healing and potentially destructive.
The story itself is rife with opportunities for disaster, with a potential for mawkish sentimentality or outright ridiculousness. It is to Jonze’s credit as a filmmaker that none of this comes to pass, and instead he takes the riskiest of material and creates a heartfelt, moving commentary on the nature of love itself.
Occasionally Jonze’s previous movies can be considered a little too clever for their own good, especially 2002’s "Adaptation," which featured a third act that served as a parody of everything that had come before. However "Her" reveals Jonze charting a deeper course with an emotional directness that proves highly affecting. Although the film is frequently very funny, Theodore’s plight is never played for laughs, and the emotional connection he makes with a disembodied voice is as real and universal as can be.
It is the emotional generosity that Jonze extends towards his characters that makes the film work so well. Theodore’s relationship with "Samantha" is invested with an emotional honesty that many onscreen romances have a difficult time mustering between two actual human beings. Jonze’s slow progression of their relationship amazingly never takes a misstep, while Theodore’s longing and "Samantha"s curiosity are displayed with such sincerity that a suspension of disbelief becomes a foregone conclusion.
For that, Phoenix’s performance is crucial, and the brilliant actor conveys a depth of emotion without a hint of irony, culminating in his character’s profound journey of self-discovery. With only the sound of Scarlett Johansson’s voice to play off, Phoenix takes the potentially ridiculous nature of their relationship and makes it seem as perfectly natural as your first crush.
Meanwhile the expressive nature of Johansson’s voice proves crucial here as she takes on the difficult task of creating an entire character with only her own voice to work with. Not since the Hal 9000 from "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968) has a disembodied voice played such an important role in a film, and Johansson works with Jonze’s material to create a convincingly multi-dimensional character worthy of Theodore’s affection. As a result, the honesty of the emotions here transcends the very artificial nature of Theodore and Samantha’s relationship, and creates a love story that is both futuristic and timeless.
Nathan Hurlbut is a free-lance filmmaker and a regular columnist for the Arts & Entertainment section.