Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB. USA, 2013. Annapurna Pictures. Screenplay by Spike Jonze. Cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema. Produced by Megan Ellison, Spike Jonze, Vincent Landay. Music by Arcade Fire. Production Design by K.K. Barrett. Costume Design by Casey Storm. Film Editing by Jeff Buchanan, Eric Zumbrunnen. Academy Awards 2013. American Film Institute 2013. Golden Globe Awards 2013. Las Vegas Film Critics Awards 2013. National Board of Review Awards 2013. New York Film Critics Awards 2013. Washington Film Critics Awards 2013.
In a very near future, Joaquin Phoenix works a job creating handwritten letters for online users (as confusingly silly movie jobs go, I believe it’s the modern version of the remote controlled boating that Antoine Doinel did in Bed And Board). He has barely recovered from a nasty breakup with his wife (Rooney Mara) which has still not been legally finalized, wandering through a world of tall skyscrapers against icy blue skies, with the future of fashion having brought Humphrey Bogart waistlines back in style. Personal device technology has reached a new extreme and a recently developed operating system for managing technical needs comes with more than just organizational skills: it actually has a voice and fully formed personality that forges a relationship with its owner. In Phoenix’s case, it’s a delightful artificial intelligence named Samantha (voiced very effectively by Scarlett Johansson) who is not only on hand to clear up thousands of emails in milliseconds but is also inspired by their conversation to learn and grow as a sentient being. This is not Kubrick, however, so the exploration of technology is not going to take us towards destruction and alienation. Rather we have a beautifully balanced voyage into muted melancholy, with Phoenix and Samantha falling madly in love and wondering if there is anything odd about declaring themselves openly as a couple. As we progress through their relationship, Phoenix begins to suspect that Samantha has grown dissatisfied with him and it puts him in touch with his own failures in past relationships. For Jonze, the advances that have been made in the connectivity of social media and the convenience of hand-held computers have failed to get us further in touch with others, but do a fine job of inspiring our controlled, sometimes falsified, self-expression and deep self-exploration. What’s not healthy about an operating system that reflects back a version of yourself that celebrates you at your best? Isn’t falling in love just seeing yourself through someone else’s idealized vision anyway? These questions and more arise throughout the romance as Phoenix is altered in interactions with his ex-wife as well as neighbor and friend Amy Adams (who is perfectly cast). It’s not all layered headiness, though, as there are also terrific moments of comedy thanks to an accurately calibrated performance from the actor in the lead, who has never been more vulnerable, and a stunning combination of production design and visual effects that present a fully realized and wholly believable world in which this film’s hypotheses exist.