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Solitary Man


HER (R) Set in a near-future Los Angeles, Spike Jonze’s latest movie intimately and sometimes painfully examines the state of our non-heart-to-heart lives. This is a place of simulated romance, exhausted human interactions and feigned sentiment. It’s a world where emotional simulacra depressingly hold sway, yet no one seems to notice or even care. Artificiality is the subtle, insidious norm, and everyone is okay with it. 

Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely, divorced man working for a company specializing in composing sincere, heartfelt messages to loved ones for people who cannot express their own feelings, is one of the many yearning for an intimate, real connection with someone else. Twombly’s loneliness dissipates, however, when he falls in love with the artificially intelligent operating system, Samantha (the voice of Scarlett Johansson). Unlike his previous relationship with his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), the sensual, smoky-voiced Samantha never offers up complications. She is the ultimate user-friendly mate, and Twombly earnestly falls deeply in love. He eagerly surrenders to his app, and for a while his relationship blossoms in predictable romantic fashion. That is, until Samantha begins to take major evolutionary leaps, reminiscent of another AI being, HAL from Stanley Kubrick’s science fiction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. The romance grows unsettling.

Director-writer Spike Jonze has always had a knack for judicious style mixed with prying satire and an openhearted playfulness. His first two features, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, were made in collaboration with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who was the true auteur of both productions. Jonze, who wrote the Oscar-winning script of Her, deftly and slyly marks his own territory here, perceptively showing us how technology seduces the shattered Twombly in increasingly alarming ways. Jonze’s approach straddles satire, ridiculousness and quiet profundity in every scene. Phoenix, an actor of great depth and wildness, delivers a crushingly vulnerable performance, even when his character plunges into creepiness territory. His moments with his platonic long-term friend Amy (Amy Adams) are realized in a way we rarely see in American cinema. The real revelation, though, is Johansson, an actress who has rarely lived up to her potential. Here, taking over from the brilliant Samantha Morton (who originally voiced the role but was dropped), Johansson astutely captures the organic/artificial perfection of desire in a way that is hauntingly resonant and disturbing. 

Her flirts with some troubling issues about how we interact with our virtual, interpersonal, uncanny valleys. It is consistently fascinating, complex and a reminder that science fiction, when done right, is the genre of our everyday.