by: Eric J. Grimm
Directed by Spike Jonze. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, and Scarlett Johansson.
I can’t think of a working actor I like more than Joaquin Phoenix. Like rapper Kanye West, his well-publicized personal exploits are deeply polarizing and all the more so given his continued incredible work in his field. Compare his performance in Her, the new Spike Jonze film about a lonely man in the future who falls in love with a Siri-like operating system, with his performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s triumph, The Master. In the latter, he’s a traumatized animal who only communicates from half of his face. He walks like he’s wounded and lashes out at all authority. In the former, he’s also wounded, but more introverted and sensitive. Sporting a thick mustache and the high-waisted pants of the future, he’s actually cuddly. In both cases, he’s created enduring characters that refuse to leave me.
It’s so refreshing, though it shouldn’t have to be, that Phoenix’s impressive work is accompanied by a thoughtful and skillfully executed film. Spike Jonze, in his first film since the equally fantastical and depressing Where the Wild Things Are, creates a Los Angeles that is huge and frightening with Shanghai standing in for L.A. in many of the exteriors. He imagines a future America far off from what we’ve come to expect in the most recent Tom Cruise films. It’s visually close to what we have now, but we, as humans, are more distant as we put more and more technological barriers between us and others. Jonze is purely interested in the human aspect of navigating technology. There are no questions of privacy and government spying and the movie is more focused and effective as a result.
While I don’t have the same feelings about Scarlett Johansson as I do for Joaquin Phoenix, operating system Samantha represents another great role for her this year. She was so funny and vicious as Joseph Gordon Levitt’s trashy Long Island girlfriend in Don Jon, and she manages to make a fully formed character out of Samantha, despite being a disembodied voice. She grapples with the excitement and disappointment of existing in an entirely believable way, allowing you to suspend your disbelief and buy into this bizarre love story. After years of so-so roles, Johansson is finally working with people who know how to use her effectively.
Her is the kind of film I always want to see. It tests the limits of imagination while playing with conventions from multiple genres. It has a clear and uncluttered visual aim, good pacing, and great characters with tangible relationships. Unlike Nebraska and Inside Llewyn Davis, it’s a satire that’s not constantly sneering at its miserable characters. Spike Jonze has gifted us an imaginary world that feels lived-in and a story that both critiques and celebrates us as humans.