Monday, January 27, 2014

Review: HER: Intimacy and Saturation

It's the near future and it's all glass and pastel. A very clean Joaquin Phoenix gazes out at us and tells what he loves about us and how he can't wait until he sees us again. He closes off with the word, "print", and we pull back to find him dictating romantic letters like everyone around him who croon the same kind of stuff into their wood panelled workstations. The print out comes out on the kind of coloured paper we used to use for intimate letters, the font looks like longhand with a randomiser. He tosses envelopes into a post box on his way out of the office. It's a nice place, this future.

Once home, Theodore (Phoenix) idles his evening with a holographic game and signs into an online sex date service that is instantly gratifying but also potentially too weird to be erotic. It doesn't help him sleep. It brings on more memories of his ex. He is dithering over signing the divorce papers. 1st world and 1%, sure, but he is in trouble.

The new hip operating system features learning technology fronted by a voice of choice. This is where the film reaches it's coup. The original voice was the highly capable Samantha Morton. Spike Jonze recast it with Scarlett Johanson. The buzz about this film makes a lot of this and how it means that Johanson won't be up for a film-long performance because she's there in voice only. But it also means that we have no trouble at all in visualising the Sodastream Girl and while we can comfortably predict from their first dialogue that these two will fall in love without the visualisation when we do have it the effect is instant. As soon as we hear and "see" her Samantha, the name the OS gives herself, is Johanson and she's in the cast.

The core narrative of this film is a familiar one. Recent outings like Lars and the Real Girl and Ruby Sparks play on love outside the norm have played out tensions between a central relationship and the community of the living/real/human/etc partner. Relationships with technologically created lovers are as old as Greek myth, through ETA Hoffmann and Twilight Zone and Star Trek. Ruby Sparks was about control and Lars about acceptance. What does Her put on the table?

While there is some initial awkwardness that prevents Theodore admitting that he's in love with an OS he eventually does and rides any resulting ridicule. We've already seen his alarm at online sex and then we follow him on a date that starts beautifully but turns very weird at the kiss goodnight moment. He craves intimacy, even maintains a career in celebration of it, but he sucks at it.

At first we think his ease with the developing romance between himself and Samantha the OS will lead him on to rejecting the ease of having a partner who trains herself to meet his needs but we are to be disappointed of that smugness. He is, rather, excited by the discovery offered him by a partner who learns faster than he can and is happy to accept a subordinate role. When the inevitable machine-that-feels moments come up this power relation sends him scurrying back to the comfort of the third dimension.

The third act is all about learning and a return to our initial expectations of the logical progression of the pairing and we are dealt a surprise so quietly delivered it feels like the memory of a hangover. I'm not going to spoil it here but it's good.

Performances are strong across the board in this talk-heavy film. Phoenix takes us on his shoulders as the emotional centre. Johanson's sprightly vocal gymnastics give a powerful indication of what it must sound like to discover, practice and perfect human emotions starting from zero. At one point she adopts a robot monotone as a joke which reminds us of the problem of creating a synthesised voice would be for real and then to the question of how much of what Theodore hears is illusion or should more properly be considered primary experience. With a less able pair of tonsils we might have been in trouble (though, as an admirer, I'd love to hear what Samantha Morton had made of it). The performance that never seems to get a mention is Amy Adams. Having subtled down her weird intensity from The Master to American Hustle she chooses here to channel Sandy Dennis and the nerdy brittleness that old stager brought to her Robert Altman roles, a kind of brittle nerdiness. Under sung but screen warming nevertheless.

However, as much as I can praise Her I have to say that the sheer repetition of issues and motifs starts feeling like saturation rather than completeness and that what at heart is a half hour Twilight Zone episode (there were several like it back in the 60s) has been stretched to at least half an hour over its proper length for the hell of it. Jonze is no stranger to handling esoterica with great flare and can put perfectly timed comedy into anything. Here he loosens the creative belt in the same way that Michel Gondry did in his first outing past Charlie Kaufmann (The Science of Sleep) and Kaufmann's first without either Gondry or Jonze (Synecdoche, New York) and the result is not so much creativity gone wild as a flabby lack of restraint. There are great moments here but they risk sinking out of sight as we wonder how long we've been sitting there looking at this.

1 comment:

  1. Good review. You have me intrigued. Wasn't extremely captivated by pre press...