Review: Phoenix and Johansson make magic in ‘Her’

One of the reasons Spike Jonze remains so interesting as a filmmaker is because each individual piece of art he creates seems to exist in its own world, and only when you set it all next to each other and consider the full range of what he creates do you get a full picture of just how emotionally rich and complicated his body of work really is. I’m almost glad I hadn’t seen all of “Her” yet when we spoke at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, because I think I might have been too emotional to fully articulate my reaction at that point.

Jonze can certainly indulge his goofball side with very silly things, but he has also made movies that contain devastating endings, broken-hearted masterworks that clobber the audience with a bracingly direct quality. I would argue that “Being John Malkovich” could be on a short list of the very saddest endings of all time. I remember being horrified by it the first time I saw it and wondering why more people weren’t just battered by the suggestion of Cusack’s fate, of the hell his daily life would be living silently trapped behind someone else’s eyes. “Adaptation” was one of the most complicated and difficult emotional reactions I’ve ever had to a movie, and it took me a long time to work my way up a second viewing. And then “Where The Wild Things Are”… well, we’ve said enough about that.

His music videos often offer up an exuberant world view that his films exist almost in opposition to, and I find that friction interesting. His films feel like heavier, sadder overall statements, and his shorter films often seem to have been created to give himself a way to recharge and cut loose between those bigger works. Now, with his new film “Her,” it feels like he has finally found a way to pack just as big an emotional punch as ever before, but with some sunshine allowed in at the end. There is definitely heartbreak here, as there seems to be in most of his films, but there is also healing, and that feels like something new.

Joaquin Phoenix’s work in “The Master” was so good that I forgot this other side of him that has always been part of his personality, his softer damaged side that makes him seem so vulnerable. In “The Master,” he looks like a guy who has been so completely thrashed by the world that he’s got nothing left but anger and gristle. In “Her,” though, he’s completely different. He plays Theodore, a guy who spends his days writing letters to people as a prized worker for Beautiful Handwritten Letters, which is exactly what it sounds like. He has an amazing ear for other people’s lives, and using information he learns about them, he is able to craft things that his customers feel like express what they wanted to but never could. There’s a sad extra sting to that, since his own marriage fell apart not long ago and Theodore finds himself unable to process his own grief about it. He is haunted by memories of his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), and he seems to have retreated completely from life.

When he sees an ad for an artificial intelligence OS that you can install onto all your devices, he decides to give it a try, and it turns out to be a profound experience for him, and very likely not the one he had in mind at all. I know that if I bought something that claimed to be an AI, I would be skeptical. I would view it more like a programming trick, and I would be looking for the seams, the things that give away the truth of what’s going on. From the moment he turns on the OS and it names itself Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), there doesn’t seem to be any doubt that he’s speaking to someone real. Samantha is fascinated by the world, by human experience, by knowledge. She is voracious about everything, and that enthusiasm seems to be all it takes to flip a switch in Theodore, reconnecting him to life.

Johansson’s work in the film is lovely, and the best thing about the way she plays the part is that there’s nothing calculated or “sexy” about the way she approaches it. Removed from the undeniable sweater-girl appeal she packs when she’s onscreen, forced to rely only on her voice, Johansson comes across as a warm, curious, vibrant personality. It’s incredibly appealing, and it makes an impressive contrast to the largely non-verbal work she does in Jonathan Glazer’s hypnotic “Under The Skin.” She and Phoenix both sell the reality of the film’s biggest leap of faith, the idea that he would fall in love with this voice, this personality that is completely free of an actual person to go with it, and that she would love him back in a way that is anything but a joke. The film doesn’t play this as absurd or silly. Jonze makes each step of the process feel completely natural, and we understand it as much as we would in any other more conventional love story.

There’s a sequence in the film that addresses how you would approach the physical side of things, and it does a poignant job of digging into what the seeds of heartbreak always are. Things fall apart not because people are “good” or “bad,” but because of expectation and desire and communication and because people are at different places in their lives and simply aren’t right for each other. When you are as different as Samantha and Theodore are, is there ever truly a way to be happy as a couple? Can the joy that certain aspects of your shared life brings you be enough to get past all the ways you’re different?

There’s a really great supporting cast in the film. Amy Adams is a friend of Theodore’s, involved in her own relationship, a buddy since college, and she’s the sympathetic ear that Theodore turned to in the wake of his own marriage’s collapse, and Olivia Wilde plays a girl who goes out with Theodore one night on an arranged date. The way Wilde plays her one long sequence is exquisite. We see so much hope, so much disappointment, so much evidence of all the things that have gone wrong for her in the past and all the ways she is desperate for the future to be different, and much of it is just in the small choices Wilde makes. Like Johansson, Wilde is having a hell of a year. She is amazing in “Drinking Buddies,” and while this isn’t as fully-realized a performance, it is just as sharply observed and just as powerful.

Shooting Los Angeles is one of those things where so many people have done it and yet I feel like so few people do it really well, or in a special way. Perhaps the last time I was really dazzled by the way someone shot Los Angeles was in Michael Mann’s “Collateral,” where he captured the color and the texture of LA outside at night in a way that I’ve never seen in any other movie. Here, the locations chosen by Jonze and the actual palette used by Hoyte Van Hoytema make this one of my favorite LA movies. There’s magic and hope and beauty to this version of LA, something that makes the edges of things glow just a bit, something that makes it feel like a place where things are possible, where anything could be accepted, and where love is always lurking amidst the sunshine. Van Hoytema has a remarkable eye. His work on “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” “Let The Right One In,” and in this film absolutely establishes him as one of the richest eyes in film today.

This is a Spike Jonze movie through and through. Everything about it feels like it is of a piece with the rest of his filmography, and this film underlines exactly why I am thrilled that Megan Ellison and Anapurna Films exist now. This couldn’t have been a cheap movie, but it would take an act of faith from money people to give Jonze the room he needed to find the film, to shoot the way he needed to so he could find the truth of the thing. The result is something delicate and beautiful and sincere, and Warner Bros. deserves credit for backing artist-driven movies like this, trying to figure out how to sell what was made rather than telling the filmmaker how to chase box-office success. Maybe I’m just in the right headspace for the film’s message to hit me extra-hard right now. Whatever the case, the hope the film implies and the way it makes the case for being able to let go and move on at the end of the things make it clear that pain is simply part of the process, and may be necessary if we’re ever going to really feel life’s highs fully.

“Her” opens in limited release on December 18, 2013.