Every ten years or so a love story defines our times and becomes a genre-defining classic. 1972 gave us Last Tango in Paris and its grotesque “butter scene.” 1980 and 1981 provided back-to-back Brooke Shields adolescent masturbation legends Blue Lagoon and Endless Love. In 1993 it was Sleepless in Seattle making our eyes roll and/or hearts swoon. And 2004 was the year of the properly-enshrined-in-hipster-consciousness Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which made us all spend a week locked in our bedrooms eating ice cream and crying.
Ten years later, right on schedule, is the future classic Her, written and directed by the astronomically talented Spike Jonze. It’s the simple story of a lonely man played by Joaquin Phoenix, who purchases an artificial intelligence operating system (OS) for his computer. He soon finds that the OS, which names itself Samantha, is a bubbly, comely (sounding) lass, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, that he turns to for more than just meeting reminders.
He falls in love with Samantha and the two of them embark on a romantic journey through near-future Los Angeles. Jonze treats us to all the obnoxiousness of new love – giggling, compliments and ukuleles — as well as all the awkwardness of the ultimate long distance relationship (phone sex). He does it lightly and beautifully, full of close-ups which, despite the previously mentioned mustache, are still well-timed and emotionally revealing.
This is one of the keys that make the movie so endearing; it’s a love story where we can only “see” one of the characters. Jonze makes up for the asymmetry by closing in on Joaquin Phoenix and forcing us to experience every heart-liberating or heart-rending moment to the fullest.
Interestingly, some have pointed to Lost in Translation, the dreadfully overrated 2003 film by Jonze’s ex-wife Sofia Coppola, as a sort of companion piece. That film, which awkwardly featured a Jonze surrogate character, a cartoonish jackass, to execute a thinly veiled jab at him, was all style with little meat on the bones. It also starred Johansson, which suggests there has since been some realignment of sympathies in this particular Hollywood friend circle, but it lacked any of the profundity of Her.
Where Translation settled for jokes about the height of Japanese people, and transparent shots at real celebrities (Cameron Diaz in addition to Jonze), Her relies on truly deep philosophical questions about the nature of love.
That’s not to say Her is without its own issues. The first act is somewhat flawed, with some groan-worthy dialogue, and there is the odd casting choice of Rooney Mara as the ex, who looks more like his daughter than wife.
There’s also a sequence where Phoenix plays ukulele while Johansson sings a song written by Yeah Yeah Yeah’s front woman Karen O. This song was bafflingly nominated for an Oscar despite being as cringe-inducing as the infamous butter scene from Tango.
But for the most part, what you’re seeing here is an incredibly assured director making another giant leap forward. The film is nominated for best original screenplay and best film at the upcoming Oscars and it deserves serious consideration in both categories.
Her is currently playing at the Carmike 12 in Corvallis, Last Tango in Paris is currently playing in my nightmares…
by Ygal Kaufman