Friday, January 10, 2014

Her is a sweet love story,
but is it original?

There's a lot of hype surrounding the new Spike Jonze movie, Her, a story of a man who falls in love with his computer operating system. The film takes place in a retro future where people are more connected to their personal devices rather than the humans around them. Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is trying to come to terms with an impending divorce that has left him devastated in the relationship department. Oddly enough, he works for a company that "writes" personal letters for people and Theodore is constantly praised for how heartfelt his letters from a husband to a wife, or parent to child, are. It's a totally bizarre concept, and makes one wonder what kind of world these people live in. I've heard of people writing poems for other, but personal letters with intimate details takes the concept just a bit too far.

Theodore goes through his day writing lovely letters for people and trying to satisfy his own needs at night, usually through a kind of online, cybersex hookup (the one we see does not turn out so well for him, but is hilariously voiced by Kristin Wiig). When a new personalized operating system hits the market, he decides to give it a try and discovers a very human sounding voice helping him sort his email, his calendar and his personal life (it goes so far as to find a date and book a restaurant reservation for him). But the OS is designed to truly interact and grow as it communicates with its owner, and the fact that it sounds like Scarlett Johansson is a definite plus. The OS names itself Samantha, and Theodore begins to feel that he's found the perfect woman … even if she doesn't have a body.

The film deftly follows the developing relationship, and both Phoenix and Johansson give terrific performances … made even more amazing as Johansson was not the original voice of Samantha. We see their ups and downs, and are introduced to Theo's friend Amy (Amy Adams) and her husband along the way, as well as his boss (Chris Pratt) who wants to go on a double date with his new girlfriend, Theo and Samantha. With Amy's introduction, we learn that she and Theo dated in college for a minute … and that they really would be perfect for each other if they could only see that for themselves. Both actors are so good that we ache for her to ditch her controlling husband and pull the plug on Samantha so she and Theo can live their lives happily ever after.

Aside from the excellent cast, Jonze's direction and eye for production design are impeccable, but I do have to take issue with the pants all the men wear. Does Jonze think everyone loses any sense of fashion style in the not-too-distant future? All the men wear tweedy, very high-waisted pants that are this side of ugly. Chris Pratt even seems to be wearing a pair of "The Pants That Ate Fred Mertz" that come up to his nipples. Not a good look on anyone. The script, by Jonze, is sweet and sad and is being praised for its originality but … is it all that original?

I can think of two cases of stories that have computers and humans falling in love. Electric Dreams (1984) had a human, Miles (Lenny Von Dohlen), and his computer (the voice of Bud Cort) vying for the affections of neighbor Madeline (Virginia Madsen). It got some notice at the time for its depiction of technology becoming intelligent but is mostly forgotten today. There was also a TV movie anthology (a pilot for a proposed series) called Rex Harrison Presents Stories of Love which also had a segment in which a computer falls in love with its programmer (I remember watching this when it aired and bawling my eyes out when this story came to a tragic end). So while Jonze's twist on the story and execution are emotional, I wouldn't really call the foundation for the story "original."

The one thing, though, that does stand out is the voice acting of Johannson. Many people are saying this is truly a case for rewarding a voice only performance with an Oscar nomination, but we know that will never happen. She is, however, excellent and even though we only hear her voice, the performance is so powerful that you could almost swear she is actually in the movie. If Her deserves praise for anything, it's the decision Jonze made to recast the voice with Johansson, who in turn brought a lot of humanity to the artificial intelligence. That's not to take anything away from the movie as a whole, but I do think this one is a case of over-hype for a movie that could have just been a sweet but strange love story and now has the burden of being Oscar bait resting on its shoulders.