Spike Jonze doesn't waste any time introducing us to the technology at the center of Her. "An operating system that can mimic human sentience?" a dangerously lonely Joaquin Phoenix wonders after catching glimpse of an ad in a transit station. "Don't mind if I do!" (He doesn't actually say that, don't worry.) But by the time we're meant to believe that such a world can seamlessly integrate characters like Scarlett Johansson's automated voice Samantha into the lives of living, breathing men and women like Phoenix's Theodore, we're already established residents of this arresting, icy, quivering world the filmmaker has built. We meet Theodore midway through his recitation of a "handwritten letter" he penned on behalf of a woman to her husband of many years. That's his job — tapping into his own unique sensititivies to play ghostwriter for people hoping to adorn their spouses, boyfriends, girlfriends, parents, and children with personal notes of personal affection. Theodore is no independent contractor; he's part of a thriving company, and we almost get the feeling that the folks on the receiving end of these letters are in the know. Before we ever encounter Samantha, we're embedded in the central conceit of the movie: emotional surrogacy is an industry on the rise.
What makes Jonze's world so palatable is that, beneath its marvelously eerie aesthetic, this idea is barely science-fiction. Theodore, humbled and scarred by a recent divorce from lifelong love Catherine (Rooney Mara, who contrasts Johansson by giving a performance that, for a large sum of the movie, is all body and no voice), accesses the will to go on through interractions with video game characters and phone-sex hotlines. But the ante is upped with Samantha, the self-named operating system that Theodore purchases to stave off loneliness, deeming choice a far less contorting one than spending time with old pals like Amy (Amy Adams)... at first.
Samantha evolves rather quickly from an articulate Siri into a curious companion, who is fed and engaged by Theodore just as much as she feeds and engages him. Jonze paces his construction of what, exactly, Samantha is so carefully that we won't even catch the individual steps in her change — along with Theodore, we slowly grow more and more enamored and mystified by his computer/assistant/friend/lover before we can recognize that we're dealing with a different being altogether from the one we met at that inceptive self-aware "H-hello?" But Jonze lays tremendous groundwork to let us know this story is all for something: all the while, as the attractions build and the hearts beat faster for Samantha, we foster an unmistakable sense of doom. We can't help but dread the very same perils that instituted one infamous admission: "I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that."
But Jonze's sci-fi constructs are so cohesively intertwined with his love story that our dread doesn't exactly translate to an anticipation of HAL's hostile takeover. Her wedges us so tightly between Theodore and Samantha that our fears of the inevitable clash between man and machine apprehend a smaller, more intimate ruin. As Samantha's growth become more surprising and challenging to Theodore, to herself, and to us, the omens build for each.
And although all three parties know better, we cannot help but affix ourselves to the chemistry between Theodore and Samantha, and to the possibility that we're building toward something supreme. A good faction of this is due to the unbelievable performances of Phoenix — representing the cautious excitement that we all know so painfully well — and Johansson, who twists her disembodied voice so empathetically that we find ourselves, like Theodore, forgetting that we have yet to actually meet her. The one castigation that we can attach to the casting of Johansson is that such a recognizable face will, inevitably, work its way into our heads when we're listening to her performance. It almost feels like a cheat, although we can guarantee that a performance this good would render a figure just as vivid even if delivered by an unknown.
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In this way, Her is as effective a comment on the healthiest human relationships as it is on those that rope in third parties — be they of the living, automated, or greeting card variety. In fact, the movie has so many things to say that it occasionally steps on its own feet, opening up ideas so grand (and coloring them so brightly) that it sometimes has trouble capping them coherently. Admittedly, if Spike Jonze had an answer to some of the questions he's asking here, he'd probably be suspected of himself being a super-intelligent computer. But in telling the story of a man struggling to understand what it means to be in love, to an operating system or not, Jonze invites us to dissect all of the manic and trying and wonderful and terrifying and incomprehensible elements therein. Just like Samantha, Her doesn't always know what to do with all of its brilliance. But that might be part of why we're so crazy over the both of them.
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September 22, 2003 7:38am EST
Top Story: Sheen Praises Canada for Staying Out of War
Actor and activist Martin Sheen, who portrays the fictional Democratic President Josiah Bartlet on NBC's political drama The West Wing, said Saturday he was proud of Canada for not entering the Iraq war. Sheen made the statement in Windsor, Ontario, where he was receiving the Christian Culture Gold Medal from Assumption University, which will offer a new scholarship in his name. "Every time I cross this border I feel like I've left the land of lunatics," Sheen said. "You are not armed and dangerous. You do not shoot each other ... I always feel a bit more human when I come here." Sheen, however, made sure to head back to the land of the armed and dangerous for Sunday's annual Primetime Emmy Awards, where The West Wing was named best drama series for the fourth year in a row.
Rocker Melissa Etheridge Weds Girlfriend
Grammy-winning singer Melissa Etheridge exchanged vows with her girlfriend, former Popular star Tammy Lynn Michaels, on Saturday, The Associated Press reports. Etheridge, 41, and Michaels, 28, exchanged custom-made platinum and diamond wedding bands during the ceremony. Although a statement by the singer's publicist described the couple as married, homosexual couples cannot legally marry in California. The two met two years ago and live in Southern California with Etheridge's daughter and son, which she had through artificial insemination using a sperm donation from rocker David Crosby.
Jada and Will's Housekeeping Woes
Will and Jada Pinkett Smith's former housekeeper is suing the couple for allegedly failing to pay her about 1,640 hours of overtime pay and firing her after she complained to them, the AP reports. In her lawsuit, filed Sept. 11 in Ventura, Calif., Superior Court, Marilu Cooley says she worked for the Smiths and lived on their estate for 4 1/2 years and often worked more than 40 hours a week. She said she received overtime pay during her first two years of employment, but claims the Smiths stopped paying her overtime in March 1999, and promised to pay her a $25,000 annual bonus instead. Cooley said she never received the bonus and was fired in October 2001 after she complained about it. She is seeking at least $175,000 in damages.
P. Diddy To Consolidate Businesses Near Times Square
Sean "P. Diddy" Combs is close to leasing a 52,000-square-foot space near Times Square in New York City in order to house all of his businesses under one roof, Reuters reports. Combs would occupy five floors in the building, located at 1710 Broadway at the corner of 54th Street--directly across the street from the David Letterman building. The space would house Comb's Sean John clothing line, Bad Boy Records and its related film and TV companies, his charity arm Daddy's House Social Programs, Janice Combs Music Publishing, Janice Combs Management and the corporate offices of his restaurant, Justin's.
Altman, Hanson Tapped for DGA Honors
The DGA has tapped filmmakers Robert Altman and Curtis Hanson, commercial director Joe Pytka, Senator Olympia Snowe and AFL-CIO president John Sweeney as honorees for its fourth annual DGA Honors Variety reports. The event, set for Nov. 16 at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, celebrates individuals, institutions and organizations that have made distinguished contributions to the nation's culture in support of filmmaking and TV. Altman's directing credits include M*A*S*H, Short Cuts, Gosford Park and The Player. Hanson's L.A. Confidential, which he co-wrote, directed and produced, won an Oscar for adapted screenplay.
Hines Honored in Harlem
Stars from the worlds of theater, film and dance paid tribute Sunday night to the late tap-dancing actor Gregory Hines at a festive memorial celebration at Harlem's Apollo Theater. The Tony Award winner, who starred on Broadway, in movies and on television, died of cancer in August at the age of 57. Actresses Debbie Allen, Isabella Rossellini, Phylicia Rashad, ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, Rep. Charles Rangel, D-Harlem, friends and family were all there to honor Hines, the AP reports.
Role Call: Watts Grasps King Kong, Roberts Gets Closer
Australian actress Naomi Watts is the frontrunner to star in filmmaker Peter Jackson's King Kong remake for Universal Pictures. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Watts would play Ann Darrow, an American actress who makes a living performing in Broadway song-and-dance shows in Depression-era New York. Jackson, who is putting the finishing touches on The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, is expected to start writing the King Kong script in November, with shooting expected to begin next summer ... Julia Roberts is in talks to join the cast of Mike Nichols' big screen adaptation of Patrick Marber's play Closer, Variety reports. Roberts would replace Cate Blanchett, who dropped out of the pic last week after she announced she is expecting her second child. Roberts would join Jude Law, Natalie Portman and Clive Owen, who are already on board to appear in the film.
Jazz lovers have lost one of their true pioneering spirits.
Lionel Hampton, a vibraphone virtuoso, died Saturday of heart failure at the New York's Mount Sinai Medical Center. He was 94.
Over his six-decade career, Hampton, who infused his music with boundless energy and a trademark smile, played with a variety of jazz greats including Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and Quincy Jones. In the 1930s, however, when Hampton joined the Benny Goodman Quartet, the "King of Vibes" made a name for himself as one of the first black men to break the race barrier that had kept black and white musicians from performing together in public.
Hampton went on to become an accomplished band leader in his own right, helping to foster other jazz musicians such as Charlie Mingus, Dexter Gordon, Fats Navarro, Joe Williams and Dinah Washington. He traveled the world with his band as a musical ambassador of the United States.
"He was really a towering jazz figure," saxophonist Sonny Rollins, who played with Hampton in the 1950s, told the Associated Press. "He really personified the spirit of jazz because he had so much joy about his playing."
AP reports Jones, the Grammy-winning producer and composer who was just 15 when he first played trumpet with Hampton, said in a statement that the jazz great was a mentor for more than 50 years.
"He taught me how to groove and how to laugh and how to hang and how to live like a man," Jones said. "Heaven will definitely be feeling some backbeat now."
Hampton had also performed at the White House for eight presidents, including Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton. Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y, told AP he remembers when Hampton played at the White House on his 90th birthday, inviting President Clinton to grab his saxophone and jam with them on stage.
"Lionel was a spectacular guy," said Rangel.
Married for 35 years, he lost his wife, Gladys, in 1971. The couple had no children. Funeral arrangements have yet to be announced.