Sunday, March 16, 2014

Best Picture Roundup: Siri Not Siri

I actually watched another Best Picture nominee! This might be the highest proportion of contenders I've seen in any Oscar year!

...I'm not a great film major.

Year: 2013
Director: Spike Jonze
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams
Run Time: 2 hours 6 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Before I dive into some of the harder to swallow nominees like Dallas Buyers Club or 12 Years a Slave, I thought it best to start with the soft, pastel embrace of Her, Spike Jonze's tale of love in the not too distant future. A strangely divisive movie, this love it or hate it story details a future world in which a newly divorced man, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with an artificially intelligent operating system named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).

That's about all there is to the plot, really. Chris Pratt magically appears (inexplicably dressed like Ron Swanson) in a couple scenes because he is contractually obligated to show up in the exact places you'd least expect him. Also Theodore's friend Amy (Amy Adams) has troubles with her husband (Matt Letscher), a man who proves that no matter how much things change, douchebaggery is eternal.

Although it doesn't commit the Wolf of Wall Street sin of stretching a diaphanous plot to an unbearable three hours, it can hardly make it to two without tearing somewhat, despite the strengths of the screenplay and performances.

Although any movie with Amy Adams deserves at least two hours of your time.

Largely a one man show, Her relies entirely on credible interactions between one man and a disembodied voice and Phoenix sells it utterly, packaging it all in a man full of tics and an invisible complete backstory hidden behind every gesture and expression. Not to be petty, but he certainly deserved that acting nomination far more than Leo ever did. Sorry, Shannon.

Johansson also does a terrific job, exuding effortless Rashida Jones charm and singlehandedly steering a script that loses track of her character around the beginning of Act Three. All without being onscreen for a single second! It's hard to synthesize naturalistic emotions on a soundstage stool clutching a bottle of mineral water, but she owns it.

And oh, the production design! All creamy pastels and just a touch beyond modern architecture, Her imagines a future seamlessly attached to the direction of the world as we are living it. The set design is soft, smooth, tactile, and pleasant - the exact culmination of a society that is slowly collapsing inward as people find newer and newer ways to ignore each other.

And what else could this film possibly be about but the way in which modern technology provides us enough comfort to ignore those niggling feelings like loneliness or unfulfillment? Don't get me wrong, I love technology. But there people who use it as a crutch to avoid ever having to interact with people and, well, the metaphor isn't too difficult to unpack.

Nope. Nothing metaphorical here.

What Her does best is casual and relaxed world building, one of my favorite elements of sci-fi/futuristic films. Only one of the technological advancements of this future is important to the story, but there's enough information in the dialogue and background to provide a complete and credible universe for this technology to exist within.

I guess I'm just a sucker for well thought out alternate universes. But the way Theodore's video games can interact seamlessly with his AI and his desktop files makes me yearn just a little bit. Really incredible production design that was put together with great care and love makes me proud.

But anyway. The rest of the movie. There's some great cinematography at work here that actually enhances the story instead of clouding it with artsy squartsy nonsense (although it does have its fair share of inscrutable visual symbolism) and the screenplay is sprinkled with Oscar bait nuggets of wisdom tailor made for inspirational Tumblr blogs.

The third act is where things begin to unfortunately unravel. The enjoyable premise loses a lot of its flair past the 90 minute mark and begins to drag as the plot scrambles to find an ending (which I won't spoil here but I will say that the company that makes the OS's should prepare for a hell of a class action suit).

There's several problems inherent in being in love with the device that's in charge of your entire computer.

Her always operates at a base level of pleasantness that it rarely departs from, but it finds it difficult to be both pleasant and meaningful for the entirety of the run time, although it does come close. I certainly enjoyed it and would recommend it, but maybe it's not such an important film as all that, despite the many high quality efforts put into its production.

TL;DR: Her is a tad overlong but never unpleasant.
Rating: 7/10
Did It Deserve Best Picture? Probably not, but it was an interesting piece of intellectual cinematic fluff.
Word Count: 833

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