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‘Her’ examines romantic expectation, reality

Academy Award winner for Best Original Screenplay opens today at Avon Cinema

Like many films, “Her” spends most of its time espousing views on human existence. But to its credit, Spike Jonze’s new film is to the Encyclopedia Britannica what the average movie is to a pamphlet. In fact, it rewrites the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Set in a glimmering near-future Los Angeles, “Her” presents us with Theodore — a spectacled, mustached Joaquin Phoenix channelling goofy uncle and English professor. Theodore is a writer, and when he first appears, he reads from a letter he has written, waxing poetic about love being an adventure capable of rescuing one from darkness. But it’s not that type of movie.

Jonze allows boredom for approximately 10 seconds before forcing viewers on a whirlwind tour of every human emotion imaginable. Theodore gets paid to write letters for other people using details about their relationships, he wavers on whether or not to sign his own divorce papers and his best friend Amy’s marriage is faltering. These developments set the stage as Theodore falls madly in love with his artificially intelligent operating system. The film is sci-fi too, by the way.

This mile-a-minute plot would be preposterous were it not produced by such capable hands. Phoenix subtly anchors the film with his depiction of an insecure adult on a quest to get everything right. Amy Adams’s wistful glances and bright dreams both add to the melancholy and hopefulness of the movie. But the knock-out performance belongs to Scarlett Johansson as Samantha, the disembodied voice that steals Theodore’s heart. The perfect antithesis to science fiction’s robotic standard bearer HAL 9000, Johansson manages a tone simultaneously soothing and alluring as she chats with Theodore and questions her own reality. It’s a far cry from Siri: The Movie.

But Jonze is undoubtedly the glue that holds together this movie, best defined as romantic science fiction. Under his direction, Los Angeles is transported into an entirely plausible future, where modern architecture abounds and passengers are glued to their technology on the metro. Amidst the sparsely furnished rooms and aesthetic obsession with squares, Jonze paints a pastel world that lulls the audience into a bland comfort — a lull that makes the raw emotion throughout the movie all the more jarring.

“Her” is not a love story. It is the ultimate story about love. In the screenplay — which recently won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay  — every situation gets its due time, whether youthful romance, awkward blind dates or falling for a best friend. Love blooms and withers in a universe where the signature on a divorce paper is as devastating as a carefree date at a carnival is exhilarating. Jonze’s palette spans the spectrum of romantic experience, validating each possibility in love and life.

Which is where the problem with Samantha sets in. It is difficult to remember that she has no body. So natural is her banter with Theodore that she might as well be a long-distance girlfriend. As their romance follows  the cinematic arc of a relationship ­— sex scenes and all — the danger of humans receding into a lonely virtual world seeps into Jonze’s story.

Samantha seems perfectly matched with Theodore — she has been tailor-made by the operating system to suit his personality. As he spends increasing amounts of time with her, it becomes difficult to discern whether she eases or exacerbates his loneliness. Theodore may toy with the idea that his non-physical love is more evolved than a corporeal relationship, but in the end Samantha’s higher existence and superior intelligence is beyond his grasp. It’s a not-so-subtle hint that technology resides on a different plane of existence from humanity.

In this world of shifting emotions and metaphysics, the only option is to live in the moment. The past, as Amy tells us, is only a story we tell ourselves. Each fleeting moment is the sole reality, and the only sensible thing to do is enjoy the present, as the future holds no guarantees. The virtual world can distort this reality, but in the moments that Theodore and Samantha are truly happy together, no one is able to prove that their feelings are any less valid.

“Her” challenges Theodore’s preconceptions of relationships, forcing him to confront his romantic expectations. Viewers are left to determine whether this is a reflection or a revolution.


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