No one would claim that Spike Jonze’s “Her” is a perfect film. Nor is it completely original in theme. Far from it.
But it’s so imaginative and so touching and so surprisingly and brilliantly realized in every seeming casual particular that it’s the film that rather perfectly completes the magnificent mosaic of films in 2013.
A truly great movie year. Without qualification.
And “Her” is, far and away, the most imaginative of all the truly great films that came our way last year. It’s a fantasy about a near-future world where the buildings are all a wee bit different, the clothes are a wee bit different, and all the state-of-the-art computers are a wee bit different. But everything is still well within the sphere of early 21st century recognition.
Except that the big shock of recognition here is this: Computer operating systems are so complex and so elaborately designed to cater to human needs and emotions that a man need be neither insane or even slightly deluded to fall head over heels in love with his computer operating system.
Especially if her name, as it is here, is Samantha and she’s played in voice and voice alone by Scarlett Johansson.
Even without her commanding corporeal self, Johansson’s voice – a little hoarse and husky and breathy – becomes, in this film, a heavenly sound easy to imagine becoming an addiction in a man’s ear. And when everything she says has been perfectly created to cater to your specific life, desire and frailties, you’re in a world way beyond Apple’s Siri.
Her vulnerable lover in Spike Jonze’s film is played by Joaquin Phoenix, the great extremist among current American actors. His violent unpredictability in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” is exceeded, if anything, here by a marked vulnerability that only the boldest film actor would even attempt. (Not even Nicolas Cage in his early, insect-chomping phase, would go as far into weakness and foolish self-spectacle as Phoenix fearlessly does here.)
And that’s the beauty of “Her.” It’s not sci-fi. All that brilliantly detailed futurist design is entirely offhand in its display.
It takes a back seat to the tale of a man in love with a machine that is so weirdly plausible that our resistance is minimal through the whole tale.
Our very real hero works for a company called “Beautiful Handwritten Letters Dot Com.” He writes beautiful letters for people who want to but can’t – sometimes doing so over the course of many years. He is, then, a man almost cursed with empathy.
When he falls for Samantha, a computer operating system designed to have empathy that exceeds even his own, they are a match made in some future heaven, which is, of course, merely a hell waiting to happen.
And that is the great originality of “Her.” The idea of a man and a machine with eminently human weaknesses is an old one indeed. (It precedes Hal in Kubrick’s “2001” and goes at least as far back as “Forbidden Planet.”) But it’s the details of this sweet, tender love affair that are unpredictable at every turn.
You’ll see the ever-so-gentle end coming a long way away before, but, believe me, not how you get there. (Especially not the role that philosopher Alan Watts plays in it all.)
It really shouldn’t surprise anyone that Johansson is so wonderful as Samantha. What is increasingly happening all through the world of our pop cultural imagination of the past few years is a rediscovery of radio – particularly its narrative abilities.
We’re rediscovering narrative through sound.
Before films could talk, radio was the electronic way stories were told. It was the way people fell in love with voices (Ella Fitzgerald’s, for instance) and the way virtuoso actors did things with their voices that were close to superhuman (Mel Blanc, for instance, who went right from radio into the astonishing voices of Warner Brothers cartoons.)
Yes, of course, it was a challenge for Johansson to create the voice of Samantha. Her role was, in fact, originally recorded by Samantha Morton and then replaced.
But Johansson, right from the beginning of her career, has been up to some enormous challenges.
What she did with “The Girl With the Pearl Earring” was resist emotional excess with such astounding grace that as we watched, we equated her with a Vermeer painting as much as the artist before us supposedly did.
She is, then, a remarkable actress when used by bold directors in bold ways. What she does here, in an entirely different way, matches the go-for-broke vulnerability of Phoenix’s performance.
The film, then, is close to the highest level of Spike Jonze’s achievement, which puts it almost up there with “Adaptation” and “Being John Malkovich,” both of which had scripts by the prodigious Charlie Kaufman.
The difference here is that this is Jonze’s script.
Don’t blame him, then, for all those years he spent as a functionary in the “Jackass” business.
If all of this was percolating in his head while those “Jackass” projects brought home the bacon, it was nothing but time well spent.
A wonderful film distinguished not by its imagination of the future but by its imagination of how intimacy feeds human needs – no matter where it comes from.
Four stars (Out of four)
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara and the voice of Scarlett Johansson. Directed by Spike Jonze. 119 minutes. Rated R for language, brief graphic nudity and sexual content.