Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Film Review: Her

Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his new operating system. But it is voiced by Scarlett Johansson, so who wouldn't? Here's my review of Spike Jonze's Her.

Set in 2025, Her is a wholly original and refreshing tale that has a very 21st Century take on the well-trodden rom-com format.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Theodore Twombly, a lonely writer with a broken heart. After breaking-up with his childhood sweetheart wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), Theodore invests in a new, state-of-the-art OS for his computer that imitates life.

His new OS - called Samantha (and voiced by the luscious vocals of Scarlett Johansson) - is an intelligent, adaptable program that can learn, grow and develop independently, forge close personal bonds, think and feel as well as ponder its (her?) own existence.

Together, Theodore and Samantha begin to pursue a romantic relationship that is not conventional to say the least - him, with his earbuds in his ears and phone propped up on the bedside table, her a disembodied AI that can be everywhere, and still nowhere, all at once.

The lead performance, by Joaquin Phoenix, has a lot resting on it. Given that one of the biggest moviestars on the planet is reduced to a voice for the entire run-time, Phoenix has to be a relatable and likeable lead audiences can side with.

Fortunately, Phoenix's subtle facial expressions and vast range suit him to a role so complex and layered. Jonze ensures that the camera lingers on Phoenix's through a large amount of extreme close-up shots, accentuating the fine detail the actor puts into the character. At times, you can almost hear his brain whirring as he simultaneously struggles to comprehend his new-found love, whilst falling deeper under its spell.

I was impressed with the infectious buzz Phoenix conveyed during the film's narrative high points. The audience were made to feel giddy and carefree along with him, as well as melancholy, confused and distressed at his characters low points. At the end of the day, how his character comes across was make it or break for Her; thankfully, Phoenix is one of the strongest aspects of the film.

Another was without a doubt, Johansson's impressive voice acting. Sultry and enchanting, her character instantly warms to the audience, with her natural charm oozing from the screen.

What is great about Her is the degree of characterisation that afforded to not just both the two lead roles, but to those that support them also. Amy Adams in particular stood out as a secondary character who adds extra depth to the otherwise simplistic narrative.

This film also stars Rooney Mara as Theodore's ex-wife and Olivia Wilde as Amelia, a real-life romance that Theodore fails to connect with. Mara isn't given too much screen-time to work with, although her character does provide a necessary contrast and counter-argument to Theodore's 'pseudo-relationship' with Samantha. I'm not entirely sure why Wilde was picked for a role of little significance, as her character barely affects the overall story and could have really been played by anyone - a shame, because she inhabited a similar role in Rush.

Some cameo performances from Kristen Wiig (disturbing) and Brian Cox (calming) are thrown into the mix for audiences to spot.

Visually, Her is absolutely stunning. The set, costume and overall design of the film is really well-thought out, distinctive and refreshing. I also liked that the film had an oddly melancholy score at times, but knew when to switch it out for sheer, painful silence. In terms of direction, Her feels painstakingly crafted, with each and every shot being feeling distinct and important. Jonze must have had a lot of fun working with the camera and working with actors like Phoenix; like I said earlier, he really emphasises those facial expressions with lingering close-ups of that magnificent (but slightly distracting) moustache.

Where the film falls down slightly is the pacing; I found that the film see-sawed up and down too much, at one point feeling resolved and closed, only for things to spiral downward again and continue onward. I felt as though the film could have been tightened a little, with the final third feeling a tad stretched.

I did however find the central concept, and the way in which it was dealt, a master-stroke. To approach a topic such as artificial intelligence  in such a close, personal way that doesn't spiral off into global, moral conflicts is a really great idea.

Too often films get bogged down in world-conquering super-computers that learn how to kill; not this one. The film asks the question, "what if a computer learnt how to love?", and deals with the question in a way that is intimate and contained significant depth of character. That may bore or switch off more mainstream audiences, but I liked the refreshing and original approach. Great stuff.

The Verdict: 7.5/10

At its core, Her has an interesting and intelligent concept that benefits from the narrow central narrative that focuses on the minute details of Theodore and Samantha's relationship, rather than anything much bigger. The acting is superb, Phoenix and Johansson especially, and the overall aesthetic is distinct, memorable and very hipster. It won't gel with everyone, but I found the film wonderfully unsettling and imaginative.


  1. Nice review here. Definitely a nice little movie, with some truly great acting at hand. :)

    1. Thanks man. The acting was the best element in my mind, just some poor pacing puts it behind some of the other Best Picture flicks.



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