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Movie Review | Artificial intelligence creates authentic love in ‘Her’

Published: Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Updated: Tuesday, January 21, 2014 08:01

Spike Jonze’s “Her” is one of the many Oscar bait films widely released at the beginning of 2014. That is not to say it is the kind of movie that exists simply to win awards. 

In “Her,” Spike Jonze, who wrote, produced and directed the film, has created a truly fine love story whose topic — man falls in love with his computer — feels mildly controversial yet oddly familiar. Artificial intelligence arrives to perhaps implausibly little fanfare. The introverted Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is informed about a new operating system amid a crowd watching holographic advertisements. From there Theodore meets and falls in love with his operating system, Samantha (voiced by Scarlet Johansson).

Theodore is a writer for a card company paradoxically called Beautiful Handwritten Letters — yet none of these cards are handwritten. In Jonze’s near-yet-unspecified-future, people dictate letters aloud to their computers. Keyboards have disappeared. People wear pastel-colored clothes and high-waist pants. It’s as if J. Crew’s spring line collided with the Bauhaus. It would be strange if somebody didn’t fall in love during this movie.

As a romantic film, “Her” is very well done. The idea that a man could fall in love with his computer never feels ludicrous or unnatural, and the ensuing obstacles Samantha and Theodore’s relationship faces, while unconventional, all occur in an achingly human way. The film’s chemistry owes a lot to its co-stars. Phoenix plays the perfect nice guy of the future: timid but sincere, awkward yet affable. And Johansson’s voice acting, dynamic and breathy, provides all the emotional depth and emotive nuance needed for a character that is not physically present.

In addition to the acting, “Her” has beautiful detail. From clothes to set design to lighting, the film is pleasantly comprehensive. The aesthetic of “Her” envelops its viewer, engaging the audience with its quirky sense of humor.

Though most of the movie is dramatic, Jonze finds sections to fit in comedic scenes that start so awkwardly they’re almost difficult to watch. Prime among them is a moment in which phone sex in an anonymous chat room takes an unexpectedly morbid turn. Part of what makes these scenes funny is their contemporary feel. In an age of rampant voyeurism and seedy Internet haunts, it is almost embarrassing how recognizable these situations seem.

But “Her” definitely has its flaws. Theodore and his long-time friend, Amy (Amy Adams), have some stilted, fortune-cookie lines like, “[Love] is kind of like a form of socially acceptable insanity,” that are far too pithy to sound genuine. The film is also extremely pedestrian, which is not unheard of for a romantic film — or necessarily wrong in terms of pacing or tone. It is just that, after a while, Theodore’s emotional arrestment is not exciting.

Gentle and visually lush, “Her” is a mostly successful, hopeful film. Beneath a scrim of romantic melancholy, it posits something optimistic, that artificially intelligent computers could find love a compelling experience. “Her” does not make this futuristic idea relentlessly sappy. 

It might be that in the onslaught of post-apocalyptic movies and TV series, where technological progress is always a gateway to destruction, “Her” is a film that refreshingly espouses love rather than desolation as the apogee of human progress. For a film concerned with how human beings connect in a world of increasing isolation, this is a very comforting sentiment. 

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