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Acting and writing come together in 'Her'

Christian Sandler can be reached at cbs5174@psu.edu or at (814) 865-1828. Follow him on Twitter at @Christian_PSU.Posted

“Her” is a special film. It’s a film that poses many questions, and explores the concept of love in refreshing new ways. It’s a witty comedy, a futuristic sci-fi, an emotional drama and most of all, a heartfelt romance.

At the center of the story is Theodore, played by Joaquin Phoenix, a hopeless romantic writer who crafts loves letters for a company that sends them to paying customers in fancy, handwritten fonts. He’s all but divorced to his wife Catherine played by Rooney Mara, and is hesitant to sign the paperwork because he enjoys the thought of being married.

He listens to melancholy music on walks home from work, plays interactive video games by himself, avoids the dating scene and ultimately lives a life of isolation. It’s not until he stumbles upon an artificially intelligent operating system that his life gets turned upside down.

The OS, Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of “Her.”

She’s born when Theodore chooses the voice of a female for his OS, and she makes it clear from the very beginning that she’s more than a computer. She asks questions, sparks conversation and can detect feeling in Theodore’s voice. Their relationship begins with the conventional checking of emails and sorting through files, but soon blossoms into something much more.

The genuineness of Samantha is what makes her so compelling. Not only does she explore and converse about Theodore’s feelings, but she also has complex feelings of her own. She seemingly knows everything there is to know, but is yet highly curious about what it’s like to be a human.

She can tell you how many trees are on a mountain, or how many archived emails are worth keeping, but the simple concept of having a body and being able to feel things physically fascinates her, and in turn fascinates us. She can’t necessarily relate to any of what Theodore is going through, but in the end, that’s not what it’s about.

She’s someone he can open up to. Someone he can laugh with. Someone that’s always there, and someone that genuinely cares about him. Just how real Samantha is turns into an underlying theme in “Her,” but she’s surely real enough to be half of a heart-tugging relationship.

When it comes to receiving credit for creating the captivating character of Samantha, — and all the characters for that matter — writer and director Spike Jonze deserves much of it. He accomplishes the daunting task of developing an intricate personality using only words, and manages to make us feel like we know Samantha, even though we’ve never seen her before.

The rest of the credit goes to Johansson, for doing a wonderful job behind the mic. Her voice is totally intoxicating, and not only does she make up for the fact that we don’t get to see her on screen (definitely a bummer), but she makes it perfectly acceptable.

She has the kind of voice that you miss hearing, and she makes for the ideal Samantha.

In a story so heavily reliant on words, the writing of “Her” is without question its strongest facet. Jonze rightfully won a Golden Globe for best screenplay, and has been nominated for an Oscar in the same category. His writing is natural, charming and elegant, and he uses his well-developed characters to convey many thought-provoking concepts.

However, the script is merely a fraction of a flawlessly made whole. The film has also received Oscar nominations for Best Production Design, Best Original Song, Best Original Score and Best Picture, and Jonze is just as impressive behind the camera as he is behind the keyboard.

He starts with atmosphere, and immerses us into an ultra-modern Los Angeles. The city is laced with technology and features a sharp, state-of-the-art landscape. It’s part of the story, but is also visually stunning, and is coupled by a fitting soundtrack.

Also standing out is the cinematography, which smoothly covers the many facial expressions and mannerisms of Theodore, while also backing up at times and depicting a certain loneliness and isolation. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (“Let the Right One In” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) expertly switches from close-up shots to distanced ones, and is always giving us the best possible angle.

The characterization is deep, and is really brought to life by strong performances from the entire cast. Notable supporting roles include Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde and Amy Adams, who thanks to huge roles like hers in “American Hustle,” is becoming one of the biggest actresses in Hollywood. All did splendid jobs with vital female roles in a film dominated by a male lead.

Speaking of the male lead, Phoenix may be a bit overshadowed by the unique premise and production of the film, but he gives the performance of a lifetime. His character of Theodore is an extremely complex one, and the range of emotions he must cover is very large.

Even more so than that, though, is his time on screen. His face is often alone and zoomed in on, and the only things we see are his physical reactions to Samantha’s voice. He’s quite literally the face of the film, and dominates it the entire time. If 2013 wasn’t such a stacked year, he’d definitely be up for Best Actor at the Oscars.

“Her” is an absolutely beautiful film in more ways than one. It’s extremely well made, aesthetically pleasing, and will cause you to look at love and relationships from an entirely new perspective. What constitutes love? What can words alone make you feel? Can we ever fend off human nature? Is it ever too late to find yourself? Jonze invites you to come ponder these questions and more in his irresistible romance about modern love.

“Her” is a masterpiece, and the best film of the year.

Grade: A+

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