Review: Couldn’t fall for ‘Her’ (** of four)

For a movie about the unexpected romantic connection between a man and his computer, “Her” from writer/director Spike Jonze was oddly disengaging.

I must admit that I didn’t enter the film with a lot of energy on a lazy Saturday afternoon, but I was completely checked out and ultimately dissatisfied at the end of the film’s 2+ hours (although my two companions enjoyed it). I was so desperate for something energetic to happen that I was expecting/hoping the protagonist would jump off a building in the final scenes. Alas, no.*

Joaquin Phoenix does a decent job portraying Theodore Twombly, a relatively successful, yet schlubby, man who ironically works as an intermediary writing romantic and touching cards for others, but is unable to find romantic fulfillment for himself since before his marriage ended in divorce.

Enter Samantha, an artificial intelligence “operating system” voiced by Scarlett Johansson, whom Twombly develops a near-instant rapport with. While Twombly appears as a man who desperately needs a connection, Samantha has different motivations, but becomes as smitten as he after she absorbs the emails and other detritus of Phoenix’s life.

While the couple’s love apparently deepens as they explore the frontiers and boundaries of their nascent relationship, I continued to feel on the outside. Perhaps it may have been more engaging if the AI had a physical presence (although the film addresses that in a quirky way). I do not fault Johansson’s performance given what she had to work with.

Oftentimes, creators of TV and film are encouraged to show and not tell. Given the non-corporeal status of the titular character, Jonze has to resort to Samantha telling more often than not. Compounding that problem is that the dialog can be oddly clunky at times, such as in scenes were Samantha says she feels liberated by her lack of a body. The act of showing the development of the relationship falls on Phoenix’s shoulders, but his earnest effort failed to win me over.

The pacing of the movie is often languid, which had the unfortunate side effect of lulling me into a near stupor. Interspersed are rare frenetic and jarring moments — some of them deal with virtual sex experiences that aren’t necessarily obscene, but audibly suggestive. They are blatant enough to justify the film’s “R” rating.

On a positive note, the film is often beautiful and slyly futuristic — 3-D interactive games that work!, a Los Angeles subway that goes to the ocean!, high-speed rail in California!, etc. One of the brightest moments was a puckishly profane non-playable character in the game Phoenix plays.

The film is firmly set in Los Angeles, but occasionally includes other-worldly glimpses that likely reflect the secondary filming location in Singapore (the high-speed train and the Chinese language signs were easy tells).

Perhaps one of Jonze’s points is that people are as likely to succeed in finding unexpected ways to connect as they are to fail. One can see that theme repeated throughout the film, at Phoenix’s job, with the AI and other characters’ relationships.

Even in the end, when I wanted Phoenix’s character to jump off a building, at least he was with someone.

* – Such comments are about fictional characters. In reality, suicide is a serious matter and I wouldn’t kid about it. Know the signs. Go back to previous paragraph.

Two stars out of four.