Her, Spike Jonze latest, breathes much-needed life into cinema

Academy snubs both leads for this year’s Oscars.

E.M. Forster said to “only connect,” but how far did he expect us to carry that? Spike Jonze, the director of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, answers with the best film of 2013. In the age of blockbusters and sequels, here is a movie so original that it surprises us as much in its last thirty minutes as it does in its first.

Jonze’s latest work concerns itself with Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a writer for BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com. He has an immense knack for what he does simply because he, like Jonze (who also scripted the film), has a keen eye for human nature.

Twombly is a lonely man, and much like Jack Lemmon in The Apartment, when left to his own devices, his thoughts linger on how he longs for more connection with those around him. This is a Spike Jonze script, though, and he doesn’t explore just the longing most of us encounter at one point or another. He asks the questions “How can one approach relationships differently?” and “How does one process heartbreak?”

Joaquin Phoenix has exceeded expectations with the astounding variety of work he’s done, from Gladiator to Walk the Line to The Master, but nothing he’s done approaches his performance here. He is flawlessly endearing and just subtle enough when delivering the lines which channel his deepest, most tender meditations on love. Most actors I can think of would see such raw dialogue and be unable to resist the temptation of playing them up; however, that would result only in contrived melodrama. Phoenix wisely maintains the right amount of restraint that his very introverted character requires.

Scarlett Johansson voices Samantha, an operating system whom Twombly develops a relationship with. More than holding her own, Johansson gives the best, most nuanced vocal performance I’ve ever heard, though unsurprising on the whole, the fact that neither she nor Phoenix received Oscar nominations for their work here is nothing short of highway robbery.

Working with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (The Fighter, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), Jonze bathes his quasi-futuristic Los Angeles scape with warm, serene light, that seeps out from the screen like an embrace. The popular Quebec indie band, Arcade Fire, scored the film with music that never distracts but only ever dances gracefully alongside its poetic settings.

Her is a movie that examines love in a way we’ve never seen before, but it’s also one of the funniest of the year. Jonze throws one original concept after another into his film. For instance, early on in the film, Twombly is playing an interactive video game that requires him to more or less “play along” with the game’s character in order to move forward. Have we ever thought of video games in such a way? Jonze explores this possibility as well as a dozen others in Her. Whether or not we find these concepts intriguing, confusing, off-putting, honest, or forward-thinking, we can at least admire Jonze’s ability to move through them with such mastery that it seems effortlessly achieved. That is a mark of a great filmmaker.

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