'Her' finds true heart in a digitized form of love

The Fresno BeeJanuary 8, 2014 

There have been few topics addressed more in movies than love. Just when it seemed like every configuration possible had been examined, director Spike Jonze offers the original, imaginative and mesmerizing "Her."

Emotional loner Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with his newly purchased operating system, who goes by the name Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). It's not the person who provides the computer voice, it's the operating system that steals his heart.

Call it close encounters of the intellectual kind.

Jonze, who also penned the script, takes a painfully serious look at what actually defines love. It's often depicted in films — and experienced in real life — as a physical, emotional and intellectual connection between two people. They might have different philosophies, social backgrounds, or any of a million other variances, but they are pulled together by a force that's as intangible as the wind.

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"Her" suggests that love can exist without the physical connection. Through the long conversations shared by Theodore and Samantha, the pair form a bond. It starts out as a surrogate for Theodore's inability to make connections in the real world, but it slowly grows into a deep commitment.

Jonze has done such a masterful job writing this offbeat love story. Despite the constant reminders that Samantha only exists in bytes and pieces, she also comes across as being someone who is as equally committed to this relationship. Part of that comes from an unbelievable voice performance by Johansson, where every single syllable resonates with an honesty that is never questioned because there are no facial or body movements to contradict the words.

It's hard to see anyone other than Phoenix in this role. The actor has always played characters that have taken him to the edge of the known emotional universe. It takes a special skill to be able to show such love and affection without another person in the scene. And, even when Theodore's at his happiest, there's always a deep sorrow that lingers in the corners of Phoenix's eyes.

Jonze manages to make some serious comments about the world we live in — a world where people are more attached to their cellphones than to human contact. There's something slightly absurd about watching Theodore and his electronic device share a picnic meal, but in actuality that's no different than the people who sit in restaurants talking on their telephones.

Even Theodore's job at a company where computer-generated hand-written letters are produced is an indictment of how society is rapidly modifying the world to redefine the term "personal."

That perspective is continued through the sharp-line design of the architecture of Theodore's world and the use of color in the costuming. The space where Theodore lives is so distinct, it's as if it was all created by a soulless computer.

The world and characters in "Her" come with a certain degree of emptiness created by the loss of spontaneity. It's the perfect environment for this original look at the meaning of falling in love.

Movie review

"Her," rated R for language, sexual content, nudity. Stars Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams. Directed by Spike Jonze. Running time: 2 hours. Grade: A

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TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, rbentley@fresnobee.com or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.

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