Over the past few weeks, Den of Geek writers have been voting for their favourite films of the year. In 8th place is Spike Jonze’s story of a man falling in love with a computer. Here’s why…
When I received an email from the Den of Geek editorial team asking me to contribute to the ‘film of the year’ write ups, I thought back briefly over the top films list I’d submitted. With the exception of Her, they were big blustery action films. Without even reading the contents of the email, I went and got my onomatopoeic dictionary. I was clearly going to be writing about some kersmashes and kabooms. Spike Jonze’s film Her isn’t a very explodey film, and when I realised it was the film I’d be covering, I threw my dictionary against the wall – kerthunk! It wasn’t a sad kerthunk, though, because I’ll take any chance I can get to go on about how brilliant Her is. Much as in my favourite films of the year list, it’s a film that stands out as unique amongst its contemporaries.
It’s not a film, however, that lends itself well to a synopsis. It’s about a man who falls in love with a computer operating system, but that doesn’t sell the film at all. It’s a romantic drama that’s so funny, and it’s a science fiction film about personal relationships.
Her is the first film Spike Jonze has written alone (in spite of what he told us when we sat down with him to talk about the film). His first two films (Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) as director were written by lauded screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, while Where the Wild Things Are was based on the famous book by Maurice Sendak and featured a script from Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers. Any concerns that Jonze would struggle to match his early films when going solo were dismissed with Her, for which Jonze was awarded the ‘Best Original Screenplay’ Oscar earlier this year.
It’s no surprise that the script was so well received; it’s a brilliantly considered film. The strength of writing (along with the performances, which I’ll come to shortly) sells the difficult concept perfectly. If you read that interview we linked to in the last paragraph, you’ll know that writing a romance with a character that’s not physically present was the challenge of the film for Jonze.
For me, the relationship between Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore and Scarlet Johansson’s invisible OS Samantha works so well because it’s protected while it develops. The two are allowed to form a genuine bond, and we’re allowed to invest in it, without it being questioned or attacked for being ‘weird’. By the time someone does respond negatively to the relationship, I was convinced, so the criticism didn’t feel valid. ‘It’s not weird’ you want to shout at the cameoing Rooney Mara, ‘it’s actually really lovely!’ Due to careful construction and warm writing the potentially unbelievable relationship never feels anything less than authentic.
The film also provides a great example of writing what you know. In this sci-fi film set in a future Jonze can’t know, he writes about the relationship between a man and a computer operating system, filling the film with details of what he does know. At the start of the film he portrays the human experience of being lonely; isolation, silence, sexual misadventure. Later, he portrays the dizzying beginning of a relationship; the nerves, the giggling, the excitement, the sexual misadventure.
Now let’s talk about the cast of Her. Obviously, you start with Joaquin Phoenix, whose portrayal of Theodore is so impressive. Phoenix’s reputation seemed to take quite a hit when he made docu-what? I’m Still Here a few years ago, but his ability as an actor isn’t something I can get my head around questioning. When is Joaquin Phoenix not good? Here, he plays Theodore as soft, pleasant and vulnerable. Scene after scene, he sells bearing his soul to, and falling in love with, a counterpart who isn’t there. All this and he sports, without question, the finest cinema moustache of the year.
Johansson excels, too. Brought in as a replacement after it was deemed the original voice of the character wasn’t working, Jonze’s casting reshuffle pays dividends. In a role where she’s deprived of most of her tools of expression, Johannson sells the adventurous Samantha just right. Between her performance here, the success of Lucy and her role in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2014 hasn’t been a bad year for Black Widow.
Perhaps the most difficult role of the film is Amy, as played by the conveniently-named-unless-the-character-was-named-after-her-which-it-probably-was Amy Adams. Amy is an uncertain character; she’s nice, but as she’s introduced to us she’s a little dithery. In the wrong hands, the character could have proved grating, as she can be directionless and placid. It’s a performance I’ve come to really enjoy over repeat viewings; Amy Adams makes the character real and so likeable. She comes across as troubled but travelling; she’s trying to get somewhere and is frustrated because she can’t quite work out where.
The high quality of this year’s blockbuster films and the appeal of those films to modern geeks mean that it can be easy to miss a film like this. Her is something to find time for, though. It’s so sweet and takes such a positive, enthusiastic approach to exploring its subject. It’s different from everything else out there at the moment and strikes a masterful balance between emotional expression and craftsmanship.
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