Chuck Koplinski: Love takes timely twist in darkly humorous 'Her'

Chuck Koplinski: Love takes timely twist in darkly humorous 'Her'

Though Spike Jonze's "Her" takes place in the near future, it couldn't be more timely. And while its premise seems absurd on the surface — a man falls in love with the operating system on his phone? — as the film progresses, this idea winds up coming off not so much ludicrous as a distinct possibility, given the path we're on toward interpersonal relationships.

Jonze is no stranger to the absurd, having directed "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation." With this, the second feature he has made from his own script, he continues in that vein, reminding us once more that a person often reveals more about himself when behaving irrationally than when professing to be honest.

The film's setting is Los Angeles, sometime in the next 20 to 30 years. Theodore (a wonderfully sublime Joaquin Phoenix) is a letter writer at a firm, which hires out to people who wish to have others express their innermost thoughts and most intimate feelings.

Our hero is a regular Cyrano de Bergerac, as he instills a degree of sincerity in his work that others lack. It is a vicarious experience for him, more so as of late as he's still recovering from a devastating breakup with his longtime partner Catherine (Rooney Mara).

Theodore has very little real interaction with others as he lives in an automated apartment, engages in remote chats with others, immerses himself in his gaming system (which features an avatar that may be the most expressive character in the film) and seems content to wallow in the memories of the time he spent with his lost love.

Any romance worth its salt introduces a new love interest to the story once the narrative foundation has been laid, and Jonze does not disappoint. Theodore gets a new operating system for his phone that's an interactive entity: a developing consciousness that comes off as a sexy cousin of HAL from "2001: A Space Odyssey."

Named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), this program soon organizes Theodore's life, shares with him her ambition to one day feel something and falls in love with her user. That he reciprocates this feeling — revealing his most personal feelings, going for walks and even on a double date with her — suggests not so much that he's mentally ill but rather has isolated himself from others to such an extent that he can no longer deal with a human being.

There is also the notion of fear, as Jonze intimates that perhaps Theodore, afraid of being hurt by a person once more, feels a bit superior and more in control of Samantha, thus ensuring that he won't suffer the emotional trauma he has in the past.

Of course, things are never that easy, and we soon find that dating your operating system has as many pitfalls as seeing someone who is flesh and blood.

The future Los Angeles of the film is one of subtle changes from today's. People are even more self-absorbed than they are in the present, as everyone seems to be speaking into a phone or some electronic device. Eye contact between individuals is barely made, and it's not uncommon for them to run into each other as everyone lives in his own personal world.

One of the cleverest touches lies in everyone's wardrobe. Fashion has become a nonissue as everyone wears bland, ill-fitting clothes, people's hair is often disheveled and poorly cut and makeup on women seems verboten. Jonze is suggesting that we become so insular that our outward appearance means nothing to us any longer and that, in some ways, our bodies are nothing more than an inconvenient prison.

There's a great deal of dark, sardonic humor at play here, and that's one of the things that makes "Her" one of the most cleverly written films of 2013. And although we might laugh at Theodore's plight, it's only because we recognize our own feelings of despair and loneliness in him that we come to understand the steps he takes.

His salvation ultimately lies in the realization that his ability to feel — to love, to grieve, to hope — is not a curse but rather a gift in a society that has by and large lost the courage and capacity to do so.

'Her' (4 stars out of 4)

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Chris Pratt, Matt Letscher and Laura Kai Chen.

Written and directed by Spike Jonze; produced by Megan Ellison, Vincent Landay and Jonze.

A Warner Brothers release. 126 minutes. Rated R (language, sexual content and brief graphic nudity). At AMC Village Mall 6, Carmike 13 and Savoy 16.

Also new in theaters

"Inside Llewyn Davis" a tribute to art for art's sake. (4 stars) When you look at the modern state of American cinema, it's something of a small miracle that the Coen brothers are able to make films in today's marketplace, let alone build the body of work that they have.

They're two of the lucky ones — having found success while staying true to their aesthetic.

Big box office has never been the driving force behind their work: They've always adhered to their own personal vision, eschewing the notion that profit should be put before their art.

One can't help but see that belief at play in their latest film "Inside Llewyn Davis," a love letter to the folk music movement of the 1960s that concerns one talented artist whose tenacity is tested by forces that have seemingly conspired to thwart him. Oscar Isaac takes on the title role, and it's a difficult one to realize, as Davis is hardly a likable character.

As evidenced in the very first scene, in which he performs a heartbreaking rendition of the folk classic "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me," he isn't short on talent.

However, he has a way of rubbing people the wrong way, putting forth an air of superiority as he nobly travels the struggling artist's trail. He pays no mind to the practicalities of life, sleeping on the couches of one acquaintance after another, bumming money from whomever he can and has no problem having casual sex with women, among them his friend Jim's (Justin Timberlake) wife Jean (Carey Mulligan), who might be pregnant.

Yep, he's a lout, but he stays true to his music and his talent, which he puts on the line when he takes a road trip to Chicago in the hopes of getting the attention of agent Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), who has the power to save his career.

It's during this trip that we see Davis put to the test, having to endure the companionship of two boorish car mates — Roland Turner (John Goodman) and Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund) — and caring for a cat that fate has put into his care as a test. His true colors emerge as his capacity for empathy and his devotion to his art are put to the test.

In the way Davis is portrayed, one gets the impression that the Coens have gone down this road themselves. Balancing one's passion with financial, moral and societal responsibilities is not everyone's forte, and in the end, that we sympathize with Davis is a credit to Isaac's ability to flesh out the gray areas of this complicated man.

In the end, the film is a tribute to all artists who persevere in the face of crushing adversity, those who hold tight to their passion despite a chorus of naysayers. Though these people might be flawed, the Coens have succeeded in showing us that nobility can be found in what others may see as a fool's quest.

"August: Osage County" a memorable tale of family dysfunction. (3-1/2 stars) Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning play "August: Osage County" is the sort of work that makes you take stock of yourself and your life. After seeing this story of a dysfunctional Oklahoma family that's lorded over by a matriarch who would make Joan Crawford seem like a fit mother, you can't help but reflect on your own parents — as well as how you might be doing in this no-win role.

Hopefully, you'll walk away thinking, "Yes, my parents had their faults, but they were nowhere nearly as bad as her!" and "God, please don't ever let me treat my kids like that!"

While the film adaptation, directed by John Wells, shaves nearly one hour off of the play's running time, its dramatic core remains as it effectively drives home the notion that, despite our best efforts not to and fervent denials to the contrary, we come to resemble our parents in ways we hope we never would, unwittingly continuing a cycle of behavior that seems inescapable.

Violet Weston (the incomparable Meryl Streep) is the harpy at the center of all of this. She's suffering from mouth cancer (an effective, if obvious bit of symbolism) and has completely alienated her family. Her husband Beverly (Sam Shepard) has stuck by her, aided by much drink, but finally reaches his limit and goes missing.

This puts everyone in a panic, and before you know it, members of the Weston clan, all dealing with their own brand of dysfunction, gather round Violet to show support.

The eldest daughter Barbara (a never-better Julia Roberts) and her estranged husband (Ewan McGregor) with their alienated daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) show up, as does her sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her husband Charlie (Chris Cooper).

It comes as no surprise that the middle daughter Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), who never wandered far from home, comes, but everyone is stunned when the black sheep of the family, Karen (Juliette Lewis) makes an appearance with her latest boyfriend Steve (Dermot Mulroney), who is just too slick for his own good. That Charlie and Mattie Fae's son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) arrives late surprises no one.

It's quite a crew, and it's no wonder that Wells was able to attract such A-list talent as Letts' characters are full of contradictions and all-too human flaws, and each gets at least one big moment in the spotlight.

Some deep dark secrets are revealed during the hot summer days and nights the family share, some of them comical, others tragic, all of them easy to relate to. Even if you've been blessed not to have to deal with people as damaged as these, what makes Letts' story so effective is that, despite the theatricality of some of the characters, he never forgets to bring their humanity to the fore, making them easy to recognize both in ourselves and in others.

If the film has a flaw, it's that it is a bit predictable in its construction. We know one catastrophe after another is going to befall this clan; we end up just waiting for each big reveal.

To be fair, there are at least two secrets that are rather surprising, and there's no question that every member of the cast succeeds in sidestepping the sort of stereotypical bits of business you would expect from their characters and instead grounds them in realistic moments.

Without question, the writing and acting in "August" are of the highest quality, both of which negate its rather creaky premise and somewhat predictable plot.

For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Chuck Koplinski on Twitter at @ckoplinski. For his blog, head to news-gazette.com/blogs/cinema-scoping. Koplinski can be reached via email at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.

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