Directed by Spike Jonze
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams
FROM Stanley Kubrick’s H.A.L. to many lesser villains which continue to follow, controlling machines have driven many a film. None has won the battle so insidiously, so completely and so inside out as this one, without anyone even really noticing that victory. Which is actually the point of this subversive comment on our technology-driven souls disguised — would you believe the audaciousness? — as a most heart-warming love story.
Everything about Theodore Twombly, starting with that name, screams a man you would reach out and hug. From the trousers he wears hitched up and the manageable curly mop on his head, to the slightly funny spectacles he keeps pushing up his nose and the red shirts and sweaters he prefers, with a safety pin on the pocket, Theodore is a nice man to know. The choice of Joaquin Phoenix, more known to exude rising creepiness with those clothes, is a nice touch, keeping us always a little off-balance.
He lives in a futuristic Los Angeles, where people are generally as nice, unremarkably dressed, warm and unintrusive. Machines aren’t in your face anymore, but in your palms, in your pockets, in your ears.
Into this world Theodore brings home “the world’s first artificial intelligence operating software” — OS 1. His calls herself “Samantha (Johansson)”. And therein starts an affair where he begins seeking out Samantha’s help, is taken by surprise by how much she knows already, delights in her attention, and then, like in the graduation of any relationship, finds himself increasingly one step behind her.
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Spike Jonze, the writer and director (nominated in both categories for an Oscar), contrasts this relationship nicely against Theodore’s other, real world. He works in an office called ‘Beautiful handwritten letters.com’, where he is one of the writers, and among the better ones, scripting letters on behalf of other people who can’t take the time to write to their children, parents, grandparents, dead soldiers, acquaintances or friends. Even there, Theodore speaks the letters out, and the computer forms the words into handwritten script. When Theodore comes home, he generally runs into an old friend and neighbour, Amy (Adams), who is clearly and desperately drifting apart from her husband. When he lies alone at night, Theodore dreams about his separated wife Catherine (Mara), in flashbacks that appear like rosy montages from a video captured on a phone.
As he converses with Samantha on the earpiece, he chuckles, he laughs, he enjoys himself, he connects and, in all senses of the word, bares himself. In Phoenix’s remarkable everyman character, and in Johansson’s even greater achievement with just the inflections of her voice, from cheery and flirty to husky, sexy and confused, it’s a relationship that acquires worrying normalcy.
When the film threatens to get repetitive, Jonze (Being John Malkovich) surprises at how many perspectives he can weave in. Theodore is troubled about the eroding boundaries at first, but almost nobody else is. And then it dawns what’s been happening as we have been chuckling at Samantha: it’s not about a machine reaching out, it’s always been about the man.