Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Cap'n Howdy's Best of 2013: her

 This is it. I spent a long time going back and forth between The Wolf of Wall Street and her, between Martin Scorsese and Spike Jonze, and for a while there even Inside Llewyn Davis was in the mix, but when it comes down to it, my this was my favorite movie of 2013. It's as heartfelt, as thoughtful, as expertly crafted as movies come, and if we have to wait as long as we do for Spike Jonze movies (4 in 14 years!), then I'm okay with that. her is enough to chew on for a while, and I'm really looking forward to the conversations that are going to come out of it with my friends.

 For example, one of my very good friends is a Philip K. Dick scholar, and he's been looking forward to this movie for a while now. The implications of someone creating and maintaining a relationship with an artificial intelligence is right up his field of philosophical inquiry, and it's going to be an interesting discussion the next time we sit down after he sees her. (For those curious, the last time we talked about a movie was a lengthy debate over the meaning of Upstream Color, much of which influenced my review, but also drove the rest of the room crazy because they hadn't seen it). But I'm getting away from the point, which is the movie. Let's get back to her (and that's how it appears on screen, so I'm going to defy my spell check and keep it lower case).

 The trailers are a bit misleading, in that they set up the premise and leave it up to you to decide how the movie will probably play out. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a bit of a social malcontent - he has friends, but doesn't hang out with them that much, he likes to be alone and keep up through his phone. He plays video games and doesn't really want to date since he's in the process of divorcing his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara). One day, while he's out, he sees an advertisement for a new operating system that's personalized to the user, and he decides to try it out. Based on a few questions, his OS, Samantha (voice of Scarlett Johansson) comes into being, and they hit it off. Samantha is capable of learning based on her experiences, and they get along well. She offers him insight into his life, and he is able to answer her questions about what it means to be. And before long, yes, they're dating. There's even a sex scene.

 And if you only know what you've seen from the trailer, there's a reasonable chance you might assumed it's going to be a comedy or some sort of dystopian horror story about an obsessive computer who loves a real person (think about that Treehouse of Horror where Pierce Brosnan's AI house falls in love with Marge), but that doesn't give Spike Jonze the credit he deserves. On paper, Spike Jonze movies sound like dumb gimmicks (you can crawl into John Malkovich's head! a writer and his identical twin brother struggle to adapt a book about orchids!) but he takes them seriously and brings a level of depth you might not expect, particularly from a Hollywood system that likes the easy option. This is the first time Jonze wrote the screenplay himself, and there's something intensely personal about it, something touching about the sentiment behind the synopsis.

 One of the first things you realize while watching her is that this is a near-future science fiction film, but not one that feels improbable. Everything is an extension of where we already are - the phones are a little smaller and have one earbud and can read you your email and respond to voice commands. Theodore works for a company called Beautiful Handwritten Letters .com, where employees are hired to craft personalized communication from one person to another, often for years at a time. Even his video game, which is projected into the room, doesn't feel too far off from some X-Box prototypes. Jonze sets the film in Los Angeles but shot parts of it in Shanghai to give the architecture a slightly more futuristic feel. It never feels like "this is the future!" but it's clear that her is a few years off, yet never unrelatable.

 I don't know why I was worried, but having just seen Scarlett Johansson in Don Jon, I started to worry that her might be headed in a similar direction, plot-wise, early into Samantha's relationship with Theodore. "She" talks him into going on a blind date (Olivia Wilde) and things seem to be going well but Theodore gets weird after dinner and things collapse. Theodore has been friends with Amy (Amy Adams) for a long time, and it's pretty clear that things aren't working out so well between Amy and Charles (Matt Letscher), and for half a second I was worried that this might be headed into more conventional territory, but Jonze avoids the easy "out." Amy and Theodore tried dating a long time ago, he explains to Samantha, but they could tell it just didn't work out. They have a much more platonic relationship, one as very good friends who feel comfortable talking to each other about things like dating an OS (which turns out not to be so uncommon in this world), but there's not a sense of a developing love triangle.

 There are opportunities for her to be broader and sillier, like the scene where Samantha brings over a surrogate (Portia Doubleday) because she can't be physically present with Theodore. Isabella, the surrogate, has been following their relationship from a distance and wants to be a part of it, but it's just too much for Theodore, and the result is painfully awkward and funny in a sad way. Isabella is genuinely devastated that he rejects her, and like the earlier "sex" scene between Samantha and Theodore, there's a level of intimacy that overcomes any inherent silliness of the premise. her could easily be a much dumber movie, and it's a testament to the care of Jonze and of the performances of Phoenix, Johansson (who replaced the on-set voice of Samantha Morton), and even Adams. They're all pitch perfect. Speaking of which, I won't say who else is in the movie, but pay attention to some of the other voices your hear (early in the film when Theodore is on the phone and then later in the cabin).

 Where it gets interesting in the latter part of the film involves the heavier science fiction and philosophical underpinnings of a relationship between artificial intelligence and a human. Samantha and Theodore are both capable of doing things the other can't, and as they begin to grow, unusual complications develop, several that I hadn't anticipated. It should have been obvious, in a way, considering how Jonze sets up society (mostly through showing, but never telling): Amy works for a game company that has a "mom" simulator as it's newest product, and it's established early on that an OS can communicate with other OS's, so the disconnect on both sides is apparent pretty quickly.

 Without spoiling too much, there are ups and downs, not limited to Catherine's reaction to Theodore's relationship, Samantha's increased capacity for knowledge, and a certain inevitability to growing apart. It's handled in such a down to earth, sincere way that nothing ever feels contrived or less than organic (odd, considering the very premise is in its nature partly inorganic), and the ending of the film is sweetly downbeat. Or sadly uplifting. Hard to say. What do they use on the Internet these days? It hits you in all the "feels." Yeah, that's the ticket. I know a few people who didn't connect with Theodore and Amy and Samantha, so there's a possibility that her won't click with you, but it sure did with me. It sticks around with you and makes you think about the film and the implications of the story and a whole host of other scintillating concepts that are hinted at but never spelled out. It's funny, and sometimes sad, but genuine. And that, when it comes down to it, is what makes a great movie. I think 2014 is going to have a difficult time topping that.

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