Love, rebooted

If ScarJo doesn’t make Siri jealous, nothing will.

If ScarJo doesn’t make Siri jealous, nothing will.

Rated 5.0

After a highly self-publicized “retirement” from the screen, Joaquin Phoenix has returned to film acting utterly transformed. Always an actor of remarkable presence and raw promise, Phoenix wasted much of his early career giving better performances than hack directors like James Mangold (Walk the Line) and M. Night Shyamalan (Signs, The Village) usually allow, while never quite creating a transcendent role of his own.

Phoenix returned to give the best performance of 2012 in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, and now with Her, Phoenix legitimately lays claim to the title of great American actor. The mopey romantic he plays in Her is the direct opposite of his Freddie Quell from The Master, brutally sensitive where Freddie acted on pure animal instinct and paint thinner, yet this is no less of a perfectly realized tour de force.

The key to understanding Phoenix’s rebirth lies in a film that many would rather forget: the subversively brilliant Casey Affleck documentary I’m Still Here. Working as a savage vérité satire of unbridled celebrity narcissism, I’m Still Here follows Phoenix’s absurd quest to reinvent himself as a hip-hop superstar.

This extended period of public fakery ultimately allowed Phoenix to forgo fraudulence. While ostensibly a study of a self-indulgent and repellent personality, I’m Still Here is where Phoenix truly merged performance and identity, embracing the danger of completely becoming a character. It should come as no surprise then that Phoenix’s recent work invites serious comparisons to a young and hungry Marlon Brando.

In the first shot of writer-director Spike Jonze’s graceful and penetrating sci-fi rom-com Her, we see Phoenix in a disarming close-up, and we rarely leave that perspective for the rest of the film. In fact, the entire movie hinges on Phoenix, playing a prototypical Jonze-ian sad sack who lives in an unexpectedly pleasant-looking near-future Los Angeles, convincing us that he loves someone who doesn’t exist.

One of the great joys of Her is the way that Jonze (Being John Malkovich) and his team create a credible but unsplashy futuristic utopia, as opposed to the fascist-gray dystopias that movies constantly tell us to expect. Her offers a teeming metropolis in which humans have fully integrated with their personal technology, living lives that are seemingly ruled by creature comforts and devoid of poverty and pain.

But amid this gleaming vision of singularity, human weakness persists. Much like our world of today, the people in Her are more connected than ever, yet also more distanced and dissatisfied the further they sink into the safety net of technological convenience. Phoenix’s Theodore works as a professional letter writer, creating and reciting sentiments for people he has never met into a computer, which transcribes them into “handwritten” form. It’s the complete depersonalization of the personal touch.

For all of the sensitivity and ardor that Theodore displays in his letters for other people, he is painfully withdrawn from his own feelings. Still hurting from a recent separation, Theodore reaches out into cyberspace for companionship, only to discover the new perversities that have arisen in a world without want (hint: Dead cats and Kristen Wiig figure prominently).

In an attempt to fill the void, Theodore purchases a brand-new OS1, the world’s first artificially intelligent operating system. Voiced by an unseen Scarlett Johansson, the OS1 promptly christens herself Samantha and sets about organizing Theodore’s life. However, his disorganization is largely emotional, and she adapts and evolves to meet his needs so efficiently that they begin to fall in love.

Freed her from her physical self, Johansson gives an amazingly well-rounded performance using only her voice.

If Phoenix and Johansson can’t sell the concept of emotional intimacy between a man and an operating system, then Her is nothing more than a visually spectacular novelty. Instead, their believability allows Her to develop into a kinky and affecting meditation on love’s limitless potential, and the human limitations which keep that potential forever out of reach.