One of the reasons I don’t write many reviews in mainstream venues anymore is that I don’t like panning things. Books are hard to write, movies are hard to make. It’s easy, and often amusing, to sneer at the failures but I know the process of creation well and hurling slings and arrows at another man’s heart and soul is not as much fun as it looks. It especially bugs me when people attack an artist’s work because they don’t like his politics or off-screen antics. Jim Carrey may be a screaming idiot when it comes to the subject of guns but he’s made some very good movies and there aren’t many people who can say the same.
But a reviewer’s first responsibility isn’t to the artist, it’s to the audience, the folks who are going to spend their good money on the product. If you’re not willing to pan something, you shouldn’t agree to review it in the first place. So I turn down a lot of review assignments on the off-chance I’ll have to slaughter a colleague in the name of honesty. And even in a blog, more often than not I pass over the movies and books I don’t like in silence.
Her, however, has been nominated for an Academy Award so I feel compelled to at least say this: no freaking way. I understand the idea that some smaller movies that aren’t necessarily popular with the mainstream crowd might still be deserving of award attention. But Her is not one of those movies. It’s bad. Its plot — a guy falls in love with the artificial intelligence of a new computer operating system — is an already played-out and unoriginal version of Pygmalion. (See everything from 2001: A Space Odyssey to 2002’s Simone). Its characters are collections of ideas rather than actual personalities — even the wonderful Amy Adams has to struggle to make her cliched nothing of a part come to life. And, most importantly, its central performance is just brutally dull.
It’s not that Joaquin Phoenix is a bad actor. He’s a terrific actor. He’s just not an actor who connects emotionally with the audience very much. And when a movie revolves around endless close-ups of its star murmuring monotonal sweet nothings into a microphone, the guy has got to connect. Scarlett Johansson — who plays the operating system — pulls it off and she’s not even physically onscreen. But audience connection is not in Phoenix’s repertoire. I’m not even sure he cares about it.
For comparison, take a look at Oblivion. Not a great film, but entertaining. And in its first half hour, Tom Cruise basically delivers a master class on what it means to carry a movie. There’s a guy who knows how to make an audience identify with and like his character. It’s not an accident he’s a star.
Without that sort of skill from its lead actor, a film like Her is just a charmless display of intellection. Which is all right for critics, I guess, if they’re not very good critics. But for humans? Pass.