The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan



Her should come with a warning: Will Make You Think About Every Failed Relationship You Ever Had. Written and directed by Spike Jonze (maker of Being John Malkovich and Where the Wild Things Are), the film completely upends both the romantic-comedy and the romantic-drama genres. Funnier than anything Katherine Heigl or Kate Hudson ever did, and far more emotionally affecting than, say, The Notebook, this is a legitimately grown-up movie about love and relationships, as well as one of the most insightful ever made on those subjects.

The story takes place somewhere in the near future, where familiar technology is just a little more advanced than we know it today. Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a guy who works for a company that writes love letters for people who can't find the words to articulate their feelings for themselves. He's in a funk, still in disbelief that his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) is divorcing him. His best friend, Amy (Amy Adams), sets him up on a blind date (with Olivia Wilde, no less), but he finds himself unable to even think about seriously committing to someone else. Until Samantha comes along, that is. Voiced by Scarlett Johansson, Samantha is a computer operating system, designed to learn about its user for optimum functionality. Theodore interacts with her via a portable cell phone-like device he carries with him. She initially organizes his emails and finds information for him, but eventually becomes a therapist and, later, a romantic companion. It all seems perfect, until Samantha continues to gain sentience, at which point the relationship begins to take on very human troubles.

Her has a number of different levels. In one manner, it's a story about how modern technology makes it easy for antisocially-inclined people to disconnect. Many of us already have a pseudo-relationship with our devices anyway. (Ever go to a family gathering where everyone stares at their cell phones the entire time?) By increasingly simulating interaction, computers and equipment are starting to become surrogates for real people, monopolizing our attention and focus. Her finds many of its laughs here; the “dates” Theodore and Samantha go on are, basically, a guy cheerfully running around with his phone.

The even more interesting level is the one that analyzes the ups and downs of romances. Samantha is designed to reflect and respond to Theodore's needs, based on the information he gives her. By falling in love with her, he is, in effect, falling in love with himself. She provides all the nurturing, support, and encouragement he psychologically craves but cannot give himself, much less get from a partner. We suspect this was a key ingredient in why his marriage to Catherine failed; as an individual, she had her own needs and perhaps couldn't cater to Theodore enough to make him feel secure about himself. When the situation with his OS starts to seem eerily familiar, Theodore panics, wondering why it's happening all over again. Her seems to say that you have to love yourself before you can truly love someone else, so that you aren't constantly relying on them to prop you up. Similarly, it suggests that only when people love themselves as much as each other are they able to withstand and adapt to the changes we all inevitably go through over time.

The way in which Jonze explores such themes is brilliant. Actually, brilliant might not be strong enough a word. The vast majority of Her is Joaquin Phoenix alone on screen, acting opposite Johansson's disembodied voice. Astonishingly, the two stars develop an authentic, relatable chemistry together. To paraphrase the slogan from 1978's Superman, you will believe a man can fall in love with his operating system. Some of this is achieved through smart, painfully honest dialogue. The rest is accomplished by perfect casting. Phoenix makes Theodore's angst, eventual liberation, and recurring torment feel just like every infatuation and every broken heart you ever had. He doesn't hit a single wrong note anywhere in this film. Johansson, meanwhile, creates a complete, fully-developed character despite never once being seen. She is the movie's secret weapon. In her hands, Samantha is so honest and enticing that we completely understand how she comes to seem real to Theodore.

The implications of Her's ending are subtle, yet deeply powerful. And hopeful! (Fear not, this isn't a depressing film.) After a breakup, most of us are left trying to do an instant replay, looking to pinpoint how and why the romance cooled. The culprits are often the same: failure to grow/change together, needing more than one is willing to give, looking to another person to continually provide us with the things we can't or won't provide for ourselves. Her is wise enough to know these things are serious pitfalls, and optimistic enough to believe that waking up to them opens the door for love to enter and stay.

( out of four)

Blu-Ray Features:

Her arrives on DVD and in a Blu-Ray combo pack on May 13. In addition to an UltraViolet copy of the movie included in the pack, there are also several supplementary materials. “The Untitled Rick Howard Project” is a 24-minute making-of feature directed by noted documentarian Lance Bangs. This is not a conventional behind-the-scenes segment, as it contains no talking heads and puts no real context to the footage being shown. Instead, it's more impressionistic in nature, using brief snippets to create a visual tour through the production. Highlights include Amy Adams breaking a take with a fit of the giggles, director Spike Jonze pranking people, and footage of musicians Karen O and Arcade Fire working on music for the soundtrack. While unusual, the approach is perfect for a film like this, and it makes for an entertaining watch.

Her: Love in the Modern Age” is a 15-minute doc, also directed by Bangs, in which celebrities and other notable people who have seen Her comment on its themes, while also offering their perspectives on love in general. Among those included are comedian Marc Maron, Chvurches lead singer Lauren Mayberry, actress Charlyne Yi, and author Bret Easton Ellis. This is a nice tie-in, as it encourages thought about the movie's ideas.

Finally, there's “How Do You Share Your Life With Somebody?” which runs four minutes and is a montage of movie clips and behind-the-scenes footage with dialogue from Her laid over top. The piece was clearly produced for promotional purposes; it's essentially an extended trailer that even ends with the film's MPAA rating.

Despite rave reviews and a Best Picture nomination, Her was not a very big hit at the box office. Hopefully, the Blu-Ray release will help this brilliant movie find the wide audience it deserves.

Her is rated R for language, sexual content and brief graphic nudity. The running time is 2 hours and 6 minutes.

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