By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
Oh, to be 17 or 18 again, and blown away by a potentially transformative, epiphanic film like Spike Jonze’s “Her.” Life-affirming, bursting with originality and full of the promise that there is indeed a greater understanding somewhere out there, it’s the sort of revelation that makes you want to explore and learn forever and ever.
Alas, I cannot complain. Mine was admittedly Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968). It still holds water. And I experienced it amidst the mood and ritual of the 1960s…no, I cannot complain. The experience was reawakened with this terrifically absorbing reminder that the thread of great, high concept thought in cinema has not been lost.
“Her” is set in the presumably near future, and trying to figure out exactly just when is part of the deliciously provocative wonderment. Act 1, scene 1, we are introduced to Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly, a sensitive, lonely chap who earns a living writing emotive letters for his contemporaries who have lost that ability in this Brave New World.
Earpiece in place, he is ubiquitously connected through the Internet, if that’s what they still call it, to friends, associates, and even temporary playmates, when he so wishes. His divorce pending, he explores all the possibilities, cyber and human, that might ameliorate the emptiness and uncertainty the dissolution of his marriage has caused. Some are funny, some sad…but none hold the key.
And then, simple and innocent enough at first, purchased with no ulterior motive other than to help ease and facilitate his daily routine, unlikely romance arrives in the personage of Samantha, his new OS (operating system). Bright, winsome, mysterious, beneficent and, in the great custom of similarly improbable fantasies dating back to the ancient sailors and their mermaids, well, she sure seems real.
Problem is, though perhaps in a way as attractive to Theo as any supermodel, she has no body. But then, to quote Joe E. Brown’s Osgood Fielding III in “Some Like it Hot” (1959), “Well, nobody’s perfect!” Theo doesn’t mind, at least not for the time being.
It builds slowly. She is at first just one step up from an imaginary friend, someone to talk to, to share thoughts and emotions with, and quite satisfactorily so. Interestingly, whether they’re being the new politically correct or truly tolerant, Theo’s friends seem more intrigued than taken aback by confession of his E-affaire de coeur.
In fact, at a co-workers behest, he’s soon double dating. Samantha is wonderfully convenient…as portable as the picnic basket he brings along, and she doesn’t have him cooling his heels while she does her makeup. There she is, beautiful as ever, or so we imagine, sexily voiced by Scarlett Johansson, living somewhere in Theo’s phone.
She is the deus ex machina transformed into female co-star… a hypothetical window into the world past the stars and quixotically beyond human comprehension. She is part Eve, part oracle and maybe even the link to greater spiritual enlightenment. Psst! She begins to evolve.
So there, I’ve perhaps told you too much. Blame it on Scarlett Johansson’s fine verbalizations. It evokes effusive contemplation. While it’s unlikely an off-stage voice will ever be nominated for an Oscar, the respectful whimsy should at least occur to Academy members.
Auteur Jonze’s tour de force entertainingly jettisons convention and celebrates all potentiality. His script rife with techno-ethereal implications, credit him with just the sort of mind-expanding postulations Arthur C. Clarke might very well have written. He is substantively championed in his world creation by much of the same crew that won him accolades for “Adaptation” (2002) and “Being John Malkovich” (1999).
Art director Austin Gorg helps create an L.A. at once recognizable but nonetheless different in its can’t-put-your-finger-on-it, futuristic assumption. If there’s poverty or crime, it has eluded the camera. The only car is the one in a cartoon shown to Theo by his friend and confidante, Amy, a video game creator empathetically exacted by Amy Adams. She’s the first human he tells about his developing tête-à-tête with Samantha.
Adding to the je-ne-sais-quoi aura of this fictional civilization residing just over the next epochal horizon are the comfortably practical (but not bereft of style) duds. They are an era-effective collaboration between costume designer Casey Storm and fashion house Opening Ceremony’s Humberto Leon. Erin Goldberger, my own contribution to the future and the director of Half Gallery, New York, describes the understated look as “Comme de Garçons meets Yves Saint Lauren inside a motherboard.” It works. It’s now … but not.
Wrought in the best science fiction tradition, this is a grand, creative metaphor, a social criticism smartly addressing our ironically increasing lack of interpersonal communication in the Information Age. But most pronounced among its artistic distinctions, when it comes to mind-enchanting, infinite speculation that’ll have you mulling all the possibilities for days, you really have to hand it to “Her.”
“Her,” rated R, is a Warner Bros. release directed by Spike Jonze and stars Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams and Scarlett Johansson. Running time: 126 minutes