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by Eric Kohn
October 12, 2013 8:37 PM
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Review: Why Spike Jonze's Weird And Wonderful Technological Romance 'Her' Is One of the Best Studio Movies of the Year

All of these ingredients lead to an impressive milieu, but it's the developing relationship between Theodore and Samantha that gives the move an accessible center. As their ongoing discussions grow increasingly abstract and the computer develops feelings for her host, "Her" hints at the prospects of a cyber twist on Richard Linklater's "Before" trilogy. It's easy to get caught up in their soul-searching discourse. "I caught myself having feelings about the world," Samantha confesses, which signals the arrival of headier conversations further down the line.

Nevertheless, once Jonze lays out these elements, "Her" makes clear that under its fancy dressing lies the makings of a formulaic romance. At times, the sentimentalism suffers from the simplistic fundamentals of the drama, but Jonze makes sure the heartstring tugs earn their place. While Theodore sometimes makes enigmatic choices, he remains a vivid enough creation to root the strange qualities of the scenario in a plausible foundation.

Despite the expectations Jonze brings to the table, "Her" contains no outlandish existential digressions or structural trickery. There are echoes of the Zoe Kazan-script "Ruby Sparks" in the slow-burning tension between Theodore's expectations of his robotic companion and Samantha's evolving individuality, but the true companion piece to "Her" is Jonze's 2010 short film "I'm Here," which centers on a romance between two characters who wear boxes on their heads. 

As with that half hour sketch, "Her" wrestles an inherently absurd concept about people trapped in outlandish circumstances into significant emotional territory. He even manages to imbue the romance with an erotic dimension, including one verbal sex scene that unfolds in complete darkness and a wacky attempt at a threesome that arrives at an amusingly clumsy outcome. Mainly, Jonze finds the story's depth in the prospects of making Samantha's developing mindset into a credible transition. Her admissions to Theodore ("You helped me discovery my ability to want") rank among some of the most poignant displays of onscreen affection this year.

Of course, with the rising awareness of chatty iPhone software like Siri and the role of technology in defining routine, "Her" implies much about the pratfalls of organizational progress, but its outlook is never overwhelmingly grim. Instead, Jonze depicts the interior life afforded by new media as a force that blends danger and excitement, enabling his movie to chronicle a romance that every computer-savvy communicator has experienced to some degree. Despite its science fiction backdrop, "Her" derives its chief appeal from the paradoxes of the present.

Criticwire grade: A-

HOW WILL IT PLAY? A definite crowd pleaser making its world premiere as the closing night selection of the New York Film Festival, "Her" will be released by Warner Bros. on December 18. Strong reviews coupled with Jonze's fan base and the intriguing premise should yield solid box office returns through the holidays. Its awards season prospects are a different story: In a crowded year, the movie may not gain much traction in the long-term aside from the potential for Jonze's screenplay to gain some attention.

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  • doubting_OS | December 8, 2013 10:26 PMReply

    Don't believe the critics. Any hope that Charlie Kaufman might have done some uncredited writing on this project, or that it was an artful pilfering of Stanislaw Lem, is dashed within the first 3 minutes. For those old enough to remember, the TV show "Mr. Ed" is the template for this movie: you need only replace the horse with the operating system, add the desire of Wilbur to have conjugal relations with the poor thing, and mix in the sitcom accessories, absurd supporting characters.

    It's great to be rich and famous in the movie business, because wealth and fame instantly turns you into an acclaimed writer and thinker.

  • candyland | October 15, 2013 11:08 AMReply

    What? people are too wrapped up in their cellphones to experience true human interaction? Brilliant! Genius!

  • Artxuleta | October 14, 2013 8:46 PMReply

    Spike always does something new. https://vimeo.com/m/7761485

  • Artxuleta | October 14, 2013 8:46 PMReply

    Spike always does something new. https://vimeo.com/m/7761485

  • drew | October 14, 2013 8:34 AMReply

    Just so you know "I'm Here" is not about characters with boxes on their heads... it is about 2 robots living in the modern world.

  • Eric | December 11, 2013 10:55 AM

    ...with boxes on their heads.

  • Daniel Delago | October 13, 2013 9:54 PMReply

    Walk through any shopping mall on a Saturday afternoon and observe youth checking their smartphones for new text messages. This film is a profound statement on how technology has changed how we live and communicate. It's a double-edged sword and Jonze taps into how we're actually more disconnected than socially connected now. It's brilliant.

  • Greg | October 13, 2013 12:40 PMReply

    The audience was laughing at parts that I found to be strangely earnest and emotionally involving. The film is funny, for sure, but it feels so genuine and Joaquin Phoenix is so incredibly dedicated--his face has more emotional range than most actors have in their entire bodies--that HER never felt surreal or bizarre. It's an ostensibly small film with deceivingly profound resonance.