I have an unhealthy attachment to my cell phone.
I feel like I’ve been writing this blog long enough and that you people “know” me so I am comfortable making this kind of confession. I have a wholly unhealthy relationship with my phone; if I leave it at home, the level of anxiety that I have rivals that of a mother that doesn’t know where her child is. The whole day I am off kilter, obsessing about its whereabouts. I know because this happened last week, when I innocently forgot to grab my phone when I left for work. It was a stressful day, which is ridiculous since I not only had a desktop computer at my disposal, but also my tablet and a desk phone. But, of course, none of those devices can send or receive a text message and the thought that I was missing something important was almost too much for me to handle. Now, keep in mind that I can count the number of really important texts that I’ve received in my life on one hand. But the idea that I was missing out on something drove me to distraction.
Yes – I have issues.
However, as much as I love my phone and the technology that it puts at my fingertips, I am not in love with my phone. That concept was initially something of a hard sell for me, despite my proclivity to have my cell by my side at all times. When I first saw the previews for the film Her, where Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his operating system, I was a little skeptical. It all seemed kind of ridiculous and I remember people laughing after the trailer had ended at the sheer lunacy of the premise. I remember one person turning to their companion as asking if that was a fake trailer.
Nevertheless, I have complete faith in director Spike Jonze so while I had my doubts about the concept, I had confidence in his execution. The fact that he also wrote the film was a mark in the film’s favor as well; Jonze is a pretty creative guy and if anyone was going to stick the landing in this film, it would be him. An impressive cast was the final component that won me over. By the fourth time that I saw the trailer, I was legitimately excited for the film and saw the potential for a compelling story in what I had first dismissed as nonsense.
My change of heart was absolutely warranted as I truly enjoyed Her; though the love affair is between a human and an inanimate object, it is still one of the more poignant and touching stories about love and romance that I’ve seen. Jonze and his actors completely sell the story and within moments of the story unfolding you forget that this is a tale that on paper sounds outlandish at best.
A lot of the credit for the beauty of Her belongs to Phoenix, who gives a wonderful and heartbreaking performance. This is one of my favorite roles of his in a while; he is so vulnerable and multifaceted that you just want to give him a hug. His loneliness and inability to connect with the real world in the wake of the dissolution of his marriage are relatable and believable to anyone who has been through a rough breakup. In his hands Theodore Twombly is a sweet guy who has regressed into himself and transforms once he connects with his operating system Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Theodore slowly blossoms and Phoenix masterfully handles this subtle transformation; you not only completely believe that Theodore is in love with Samantha, but he manages to make it not seem weird or too abstract. You believe that this is a real relationship and you find yourself happy that Theodore is happy, despite the unconventional nature of his romance. Since Samantha is only a voice, a lot of the heavy lifting in the movie falls to Phoenix, who more than rises to the challenge. It has been an especially stellar year for lead actor performances in films, but Joaquin Phoenix absolutely deserved to be recognized by the Academy for the work he does in Her. His full commitment to the role and his artful depiction of Theodore falling in love with Samantha was like nothing else that I saw this year. In a lot of ways, he had a higher level of difficulty because the role was so unique and creative; while Matthew McConaughey, Christian Bale, Leonardo DiCaprio, Bruce Dern and Chiwetel Ejiofor are all stellar, most of them are portraying real people and all are portraying very real situations. The role of Theodore could have easily become one note or a joke, but Phoenix finds the true humanity in this story and it’s a shame that he couldn’t find his way into the crowded field for some recognition.
Scarlett Johansson also has an interesting handicap in her portrayal of Samantha as she has to convince the audience that an operating system could develop feelings for a person. She mostly nails this, though I did eventually grow a little weary of her voice by the end of the film. You do believe, however, that Samantha is an equal partner in this relationship; this is not simply the story of a lonely guy who channels his despair into a delusional obsession with his phone. Samantha evolves as well, and in many ways this is the even harder part of the film to make believable. Johansson is ultimately able to pull this off, without the benefit of any emotion other than what she can convey in her voice. The lead roles in Her are unique, but when done as well as Phoenix and Johansson they create an interesting and surprisingly relatable look at relationships and the inherent joy and struggles associated with them.
Of course, without a well written script or helpful direction, Phoenix and Johansson would be limited in what they could accomplish. Jonze provides them with a solid foundation in his script and his direction is 100% on point in the film. Jonze is a true visionary and can somehow take some of the more off the wall ideas – like someone having a portal into actor John Malkovich’s head in the film Being John Malkovich – and make them seem completely logical yet still maintain their whimsy. He just has a knack for this kind of filmmaking so his association with Her really is a perfect marriage. There aren’t a lot of directors that could pull off this film with the depth of emotion and humor that Jonze is able to coax out of his stars.
Some other quick thoughts:
- Amy Adams, Chris Platt and Rooney Mara all have small roles in the film as well and do nice work in their supporting parts. Adams is completely dressed down and mousy as Theodore’s best friend, a complete departure for the glamour of her other big role this year in American Hustle.
- While none of the actors were recognized for their fin work, I’m glad that film at least squeezed in as a best picture contender. Jonze also has a real shot in the Best Original Screenplay category.
- It is kind of amazing to think about how much your phone or computer really “knows” about you; it might be a good thing for a lot of people that our electronic devices keep our secrets.
- Just in case you were wondering – the day I left my phone home, I had zero text messages waiting for me. All that agitation for no good reason; I am clearly not as popular as I like to believe.
- I also really dug the music in Her; Karen O from Yeah, Yeah Yeahs received a Best Original Song nomination for “Moon Song”
I really enjoyed Her and its interesting and unique premise; though I first dismissed it as a trifle, it easily would make my list of best films of 2014 thanks to an incredibly strong performance from Joaquin Phoenix. If you have previously enjoyed Spike Jonze’s directorial work, you will be impressed with what Her has to offer. I encourage those that are dismissive of the plot to take a chance on this film – I think it will win you over. This is a sweet and touching film about alienation, love and connecting with others. It is a love story for our times – the emotions are real, but the conditions are very modern. Joaquin Phoenix is not everyone’s cup of tea and seems to go out of his way to be unpleasant, but this just may be the film that reminds people that underneath it all he is one hell of an actor. Spike Jonze and his actors bring an unlikely love story to life.