Monday, 24 February 2014

Oscar Review – Her

If you are not familiar of what the term “High Concept” means; essentially it refers to being able to condense the premise of a film, book or whatever to a simple concept. The most cited examples of this tend to be “what if we cloned dinosaurs” or “Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito are twins”. Out of all of this year’s Oscar contenders, the High Concept conceit of “a man falls in love with his computer operating system” is perhaps the most eye catching. Her, directed by Spike Jonze, is about that very thing. I must admit that the high concept idea did worry me as I thought it could degrade into a pretentious, avant garde, post modernist, up it's own arse analysis of the meaning of love in a technological age or go the other way and be about an operating system being driven violently insane by jealousy. So what did Spike Jonze do with this high concept?

The name of the game seemed to be nuance. This is especially true when it comes to Jonze's vision of the future. There are no flying cars or vast CGI mega-cities. The world Twombly inhabits is not much different to our own with the exception of better voice recognition, faster more reliable internet, an awesome franking machine, and of course, highly responsive and self aware Operating Systems. Essentially, humanity's technological development seems to have been focused on convenience rather than grand projects and part of Her's success is that I found the technology very believable.  Much of the film’s focus is on the mundane and the everyday with major world changing issues, such as OS’ achieving sentience and eventually collective enlightenment, being pushed to the background (with the exception of when it directly impacts the main character’s love life). 
Subtlety is also central to the acting. Joaquin Phoenix plays the wonderfully named Theodore Twombly who, despite earning a living writing “heartfelt” letters on behalf others, is a man very much detached with his own emotions. It seems that Phoenix has firmly left his scenery chewing Gladiators days behind him and he seems perfectly suited to playing a man who has seemingly damaged the function that allows him to experience Joy. We see this anhedonia slowly dissipate as he interacts with Samantha, his sentient Operating System, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. The playful and giggly interaction between these two characters is both understated and, perhaps surprisingly, believable. There are some romantic films (often directed by Richard Curtis), with two fully corporeal leads, where I have found the central relationship completely unbelievable. One of the reasons this film works so effectively is that, despite the fact that one half of the relationship is a disembodied voice, I never once questioned validity of the relationship. Much of this is down to the acting, though the very well crafted script helps.
Amy Adams' is faultless in her portrayal as Amy, Theodore's best friend and confidant and the interaction between is central bringing out the films main theme. The scene in which Theodore gradually confides as to the nature of his relationship with Samantha is both perfectly scripted and wonderfully played.  Most people have been on both sides of this conversation in real life, whether it be a conversation with a friend who is coming out or you confiding a secret infatuation with your best mate. Theodore slowly broaches the subject, testing the water with each sentence whilst trying to gauge how his friend will react to the rather strange news.  In the end, the unfazed Amy explains that though it may be crazy to fall in love with your Operating System, all love and all relationships are essentially crazy and Theodore’s situation is no different.  This is the essence of the film, the idea that although high concept idea of “man falls in love with his operating system” may seem peculiar, the romance itself is a very conventional.  Samantha and Theodore meet, they learn more about each other, struggle and eventually adapt to a new relationship and gradually drift apart because as one character outgrows the confines of the couple.  In fact we only once see the relationship questioned, and that is mainly by Twobly's angry ex wife.  

Final Thoughts
In some my past reviews I have divided the analysis into “the good” and “the bad”.  I think Her is an example of why I may move away from that formula in future mainly because it is far more interesting to talk about what the film got right rather than the small number of things it got wrong.  It’s not quite perfect; I did think it began to drag out a little towards the end and pacing issues did threaten to derail the narrative.  But in final analysis Jonze has managed to take a very basic left field idea turn it into a believable love story that is not too far removed from the romantic experiences we have all had in our everyday lives.  

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