Jonze’s ‘Her’ is love at first gigabyte

by Varun Bhucar | 1/12/14 6:19pm

One of my favorite fun facts is that Spike Jonze, director of movies that your friend tells you will “totally blow your mind, man,” is co-creator of the television show “Jackass.” (Yes, that “Jackass.”) Yet beneath the ball-smashing, sadistic humor, there is a veneer of genius to “Jackass.” It is the post modern answer to vaudevillian slapstick humor, as only the 21st century could do it — as loud and outrageous as possible.

Jonze has already demonstrated his genius by subtly subverting and reworking classic television and film tropes, but he achieves legendary status with “Her” (2013), his latest effort. To put it bluntly, “Her” is the best movie I have seen in a long, long time.

If you watch the film’s trailer, “Her” appears to be about a man who falls in love with his computer. This, however, is just the groundwork. “Her” is a treatise on love, trauma, technology and what it means to be human.

Told through the eyes of Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a man in the midst of a divorce with his beloved wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), the film introduces the audience to “romance” at every turn. Theodore’s job is to write personal letters for other people — he is a poet disguised as an emotional mercenary. Feeling isolated in his personal life, he becomes increasingly drawn into a relationship with his intelligent operating system, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). They fall in love, but in the process they redefine the word as well as what it means to love someone or something.

Theodore and Samantha’s relationship is destined for silver screen legacy, partly because of Phoenix and Johansson’s masterful performances and partly because of how real the relationship feels. Phoenix, whose turn as Freddie Quell in “The Master” (2012) was an exercise in misanthropy, does a 180-degree turn here, portraying Theodore as a lovable teddy bear that deserves happiness. This is also Johannson’s best performance, which may seem a strange accolade considering she never appears on screen. Yet her Lauren Bacall-esque voice is breathy enough to be mysterious and amorous. Together, she and Phoenix are like a couple in a noir film who, instead of conspiring to murder someone, decide to subvert the game and give their relationship a legitimate shot.

“Her” is also one of the most interesting science fiction films to come out of Hollywood in recent years. Its futuristic depiction of Los Angeles actually feels like it could be a city, without the embarrassing foresight of films like “Back to the Future Part II” (1989). A gauzy filter makes “Her” look like it was filmed inside a Pinkberry, but that’s not a bad thing. In fact, the filter gives a sense of personal warmth and love that sets the tone for the rest of the film.

But perhaps the most interesting question that “Her” carries out to its logical conclusion is what happens to a society in which we become obsessed with simulating experiences rather than acting them out? In one scene, for example, Theodore and his longtime friend, Amy (Amy Adams), play a game that simulates the experience of being a mother. In many ways, this parallels Theodore and Samantha’s relationship; throughout “Her,” it is hard to remember that Samantha is not a real person. The line blurs early in the film and never refocuses.

Audience members familiar with Jonze’s personal life will find it difficult not to see elements of “Her” as autobiographical. Catherine is almost a dead ringer for his ex-wife, filmmaker Sofia Coppola, and Theodore’s conversations with her feel intimate, as if Jonze fashioned them from real experiences.

“Her” is Jonze’s fourth film in 15 years, and he has grown tremendously in that time period. I mentioned “Jackass” as an amusing footnote to his career trajectory, but as time goes on, the show will fade further and further into the background. With “Her,” Jonze has created something personal yet accessible — my choice for the best film of 2013.

Rating: 10/10

“Her” is currently playing at The Nugget.