*TLDR* - A GROUNDED, AND GENUINE BREATH OF FRESH AIR FOR THE ROMANTIC DRAMA GENRE. DULCET TONES CLASH WITH CRUDE HUMOR TO GREAT EFFECT, QUESTIONING THE COMPATIBILITY OF LONGING AFFECTION, HUMAN NATURE, AND TECHNOLOGY.
Long before the meme that became Joaquin Phoenix's "Joker", he was integral to the interpretation of life in another society.
Jokes aside, Joaquin Phoenix is a treasure. The man single-handedly transforms any character into an engaging game of body language examination, barely needing words to express his characters emotions, but also delivering excellent dialogue with the little he needs to say to get a point across. Much like the movie poster, he completely takes over the scenery.
Whenever you talk about a romance movie, it isn't often you get to experience elements past the character study, appeal to cliche, and tension in the screenplay, which I think limits the genre to being mostly labelled simple, predictable, and contrived. "Her" brings such a bizarrely diverse range of focal points, that I'm beyond excited to talk about. All the regular players are still here: Great acting (of course), effective comedic interplay, engaging plot hooks, and beautiful cinematography, but it's rare when a rom com wrangles in a plethora of philosophical food-for-thought and a seamless, well-established fictional universe.
A depressed and hopeless romantic (Joaquin Phoenix) in the near future of Los Angeles (as of the movies 2013 release) works for a business specializing in writing and sending emotionally significant letters on the behalf of the unwilling or incapable. His world is filled with personal technologies that separate people emotionally, but not physically; Crowded walkways and transit systems are silenced and obscured over the call of checking emails and social withdrawal. Friends attempt to get a hold of Phoenix through digital messages but their calls to action are ignored. During his routine, he tries to finds solace in distractions from video games, to tabloid articles, to adult chat rooms, but is ultimately consumed by loneliness. One day on his routine commute, he is introduced to an advert for the latest upgrade for his computers operating system; An artificial Intelligence designed for emotional compatibility. Phoenix installs the upgrade and grows fond of the company the AI (Scarlett Johansson) provides, and is surprised and elated by it's depth of character, personality, seemingly human psychological profile, and self-awareness. Phoenix reveals to Johansson that he's emotionally dissonant as he's been avoiding his impending divorce with his distant wife (Rooney Mara), refusing to sign the divorce papers, and in the process starts to develop feelings for Johansson through lengthy personal conversations about love, relationships, sex, and life. Parallel to Phoenix, his best friend (Amy Adams) is also facing relationship issues, and petty arguments, retreating to personal and occupational hobbies. Everything comes to a head when Phoenix accepts his relationship openly, and finally sits down to finalize his divorce with Mara revealing insecurities and issues of profound existential inadequacy.
The themes of human connection, personal growth, the consequences of technology on socialization, and the avoidance of vulnerability are extremely prevalent. Phoenix's career of writing emotional letters for those with the inability or disinterest to emote themselves, while being unable to confront his own feelings is the most direct connection to these themes. However, the entire relationship between Phoenix and Johansson seems to represent this withdrawal from human connection and vulnerability. It's truly a beautiful allegory that also works on it's own as a surface-level story. If you said I was looking too deep into it, I'd be willing to accept the assertion because despite the themes, this movie is incredibly subtle about revealing them, and most of these depictions aren't 1:1 compatible (I will return to this). The framing of the film and it's direction appear as a straight-forward love story between a man and his computer, but even as I write that I can't help but smile because of how clear the allegory is upon retrospection.
However, this isn't to the movie's detriment, as it takes this relationship to it's extremes, while also managing to not come off as cold or cynical. Like I mentioned, it would not surprise me to hear many people claim the allegory simply doesn't exist. Because of how dedicated the story is to being a work of genuine romance, this allegory is put to the wayside if it were to ever conflict with the tone and narrative, and I think that's for the best. As entertaining as it would appear to be for Johansson's character to be a direct symbol as the surrogate for human connection, it would simplify the character far too much to really sell "Her" on it's premise. As much as it would satisfy intellectual curiosity to have that purely compatible allegory on a 1:1 scale, I'm very glad it isn't there. It's important to have the idea interpretable and apparent, but as an audience member, I also need a belief in Johansson's sense of "self" and identity in a candid and explosive romance outside of being a symbol for a simpler concept like "the cold dead embrace of artificial communication and acceptance". These two concepts don't work if used traditionally, and that's where I think Spike Jonze's depiction of the world and this tumultuous love story is proficient and shows a level of expert craftsmanship where the elements are able to be seamlessly harmonized into a considerable work of effort with immaculate execution.
The hauntingly seductive voice talent of Scarlett Johansson, and the audio-work to cement her disembodied presence on screen is one of the biggest boons of the film. Her voice is never identifiable as having a point of reference in the environment, so you're not able to associate the character and voice to an object or entity on screen. This distinct and effective way to generate a sense of artifice in the character is extremely satisfying and subtle. Whether or not this is meant to reflect her character as an extension of the device you are watching the movie on is certainly debatable, but much like the rest of the films associations with symbolism, it appears to be subject to your interpretation.
As I mentioned earlier about Phoenix taking over the scenery of this movie; I meant that literally. With so much going on, it's easy to miss that the setting is based in the future outside of the presence of artificial intelligence. This rendition of Los Angeles so closely resembles modern America to the point that it's easy to miss the subtleties in architecture and fashion but ultimately, you're missing out by ignoring it. All the effort provided by a talented crew just to make the environment grounded and immersive really deserves some praise here. I think this is done intentionally to sell creative symbolism, and that we aren't that far off from these events in our own lives.
The world is decorated with these colorfully robed yet dull people with muted fashion senses that match modern life. Seeing almost every man with their shirts tucked into their high-waistline pants, wearing pastel button-up cardigans, and shoulder-wielding book bags is just amusing as the status-quo while also entirely unobtrusive to your attention. Everyone just seems so placid and inoffensive despite the fact that everyone you meet in the film is clearly in some kind of emotional distress. It comes off as a way to obscure any notion of distinction or bold outward personality, again matching the themes of emotional and human disconnect.
The background of each scene is littered with buildings that are almost entirely made of clear glass, which again seems to encapsulate the concepts of technology and instant communication making us more transparent and less private.
This all culminates into what is probably my favourite cinematic example of indirect symbolism and it's through a very believable and grounded setting that doesn't rely on the tropes and sensationalism that a less fitting interpretation of science fiction would offer.
Leaving the wonderful world of philosophy and literary devices, I also could not finish this review without mentioning the tone in humor. The comedic elements strewn throughout the plot are not only charmingly peppered into the events, matching the themes associated to keep you invested, but they are also effective. They are mostly incredibly adult and inappropriate, but also not cheap and derivative unlike most comedic interludes of the same ilk. As tame as the movie can be at parts, the humor is easily where it's most controversial. The depictions of how desensitized the population is towards sex and language is just plain hilarious.
I hope you check this film out. It's one of the greats. I'd recommend it to anyone who likes allegory, and world-building attached to an excellent plot arc. The romantic elements are done well, but also appealing to a larger audience than your cliche romantic chick flick.
As always, This has been The Shelf signing off with another recommendation. I hope to see you next week, for a new review.