Spike Jonze’s singular “her” is a woozy fantasy/nightmare in which an isolated, seemingly computer-generated voice named Samantha seduces a mild-mannered Joaquin Phoenix, taking over his life in much the same unhurried, insidious way that the system HAL ruthlessly overwhelms the two astronauts in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968).
Shot in Los Angeles (but abetted by Shanghai to give it a futuristic look), "her" also has its way with its audience, thanks to the pervasive sunniness caught by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and the hallucinatory soft pastel colors favored by the film's invaluable visual design team. That would be production designer K.K. Barrett, art director Austin Gorg, set decorator Gene Serdena and particularly Casey Storm, Jonze's house costume designer who has dressed the cast in cutting-edge fashions.
The look of this film goes way beyond trendy.
So does its plot, even though, in many ways, it recalls Hal Ashby's equally iconoclastic romance, "Harold & Maude" (1971), in its offbeat, oddball consideration of what constitutes attraction and love.
Much like Bud Cort's Harold Chasen, Phoenix's Theodore Twombly is "poetically melancholic" (as ideally put by Manhola Dargis in her New York Times review), rather blissfully nursing the pangs of a broken marriage (to Rooney Mara) while expressing his hurt through the swoony "personal" letters that he writes for other people in his curious professional life for, yes, an on-line service called BeautifuHandwrittenLetters.com.
Holed up in a spacious, handsome apartment, minimally decorated, and with a best friend (Amy Adams) who makes nifty animations and documentaries, Theodore is decidedly cut off from reality by privilege.
Enter Samantha, the self-named Operating System made for someone who is clearly as acquisitive as Theodore. It's his latest toy. Scarlett Johansson voices Samantha and her contribution to the film is crucial because as she speaks, we imagine Johansson and better appreciate her seduction of Theodore and how he can be so easily bewitched.
Just as scenarist Colin Higgins made the noncomformist relationship of Harold and Maude palatable, Jonze brings a natural charm to the atypical courtship here, as Samantha makes herself invaluable to Theodore, tidying up the events in his life and then acting as matchmaker for her lovelorn employer before taking things even further, romantically and emotionally.
"her" is "Harold and Maude" for Millennials.
Much has been written/said about Robert Redford's solo turn in "All Is Lost," but far too little to date about Phoenix's veritable one-man-show here. In retrospect, Redford had it easy; Phoenix, on the other hand, has dialogue, and plenty of it, that he essentially speaks into air, but with just the right vocal inflections and facial expressions. It's a performance that must have taken a lot of focused concentration and imagination. The actor and the character are a perfect fit. Phoenix has nurtured a persona of strangeness for years now - bugginess is his norm - and Jonze shrewdly showcases/exploits/capitalizes on it. Bottom line: He's incredible.
One of the treats of "her" is the uncredited vocal support that dots the film. Bill Hader and Brian Cox provide two of the voices, but the funniest bits come from Jonze himself, who does the voice of a foul-mouthed alien child in a video game that Theodore plays, and Kristin Wiig, who plays a computer-sex date who wants Theodore to strangle her with a dead cat.
Just see the movie. It's marginal, yes. It's a little freaky, maybe.
But those are reasons to go.
Note in Passing: Hal Ashby has been credited with being their inspiration by such filmmakers as Wes Anderson and Alexander Payne. By all appearances, Jonze is part of that crowd. There are moments in his film that seem to quote "Harold & Maude," such as the movie's fade-out scene which is identical to the moment from "Harold & Maude" below.
Credit: Paramount Pictures