2013 - 126 minutes
Directed by: Spike Jonze
Written by: Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johnansson, Amy Adams, Olivia Wilde, Rooney Mara, Matt Letscher, Chris Pratt
Her is a deeply personal film for our impersonal times, set in a believable future where our gadget-driven hyper-connectivity has forced us even further into emotional isolation. The best kind of science-fiction imagines a future that encourages us to confront our present, something that Her accomplishes beautifully by blending reasonable scientific advancement with a fictional romance that, despite its seemingly unconventional nature, is timeless in its machinations. With his fourth feature director Spike Jonze, working for the first time from his own script, creates a high-concept that manages to stay grounded and resonate in ways that elate and dishearten.
Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a functional shell, hurting after a divorce and prolonging his misery by not signing dissolution papers. Even with his harboring of pain, or perhaps because of it, Theodore is a talented writer for BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, a company that provides customers with little time or ability to convey their feelings with meaningful correspondence to loved ones. Never mind the many ironies in the firm’s name; their letters are scripted on a computer by people in a physical office space. These redundancies and inconsistencies are things that exist today, and are sure to only deepen in the future that Her plays with. I’m reminded of those annoying calls to service companies that ask a series of automated questions to help “serve us better,” the live person then getting on the line and asking us the same things all over again.
Theodore upgrades his digital life with a new operating system, OS1, which is so efficient and intuitive it can simultaneously read entire books, manage your e-mail, and get to know you. The setup includes only a few basic questions and, using speech patterns, designs your perfect life assistant. There are no artistic renderings of the OS behind the curtain (though the loading screen image that resembles a DNA double helix with completed loops on the ends is a nice touch). There’s only a voice that can help you with any desire. For Theodore this is “Samantha” (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), who quickly endears herself with a sweet curiosity about the world and her new master.
The two entities quickly bond and progress from the getting-to-know-you phase to the heck-why-can’t we-date phase. It’s logical for Samantha as Theodore is her introduction to the world, experiencing it through his eyes via cell phone camera perched in his shirt pocket. It feels right for Theodore as connections with “real” women are fruitless; the painful visions of his ex Catherine (Rooney Mara) couldn’t be possible if his lover had no body, right? Hilariously unsatisfying online chats, a date with a beautiful but clingy woman (a perfectly plucky, sad Olivia Wilde), and the fact that his friend and most obvious romantic partner Amy (Amy Adams) is married, reinforce for Theodore that dating his OS isn’t that bad of an option.
And in this future it isn’t some crazy notion of a societal outcast. Magazine articles have documented the phenomena and reactions to Theodore’s romance vary from excitedly inquisitive, to impassive, to the vitriolic judgment of Catherine – not the fact that her ex-husband is dating an OS, but because he finally found a relationship where he can control everything. And maybe she’s right.
Where the relationship goes it is best to discover fresh, but sometimes things play out as expected and sometimes not. Jonze does a masterful job of setting up relatable scenarios and letting them play out, occasionally pulling the rug out. There’s a great sequence where a live woman enters the picture to serve as a flesh and blood surrogate for Samantha, allowing Theodore to reach out and touch someone while listening to the voice of his disembodied love. You may be asking what’s in it for this woman, but the emotional payoff (or impasse) for all parties make sense.
Everything in this film works. Phoenix is fantastic as a downtrodden man that remains purposeful and likeable. It’s a restrained genius performance from an actor that has a history of showy (but equally good) moments. Johansson expresses every emotion effectively with no physical screen time – she truly brings Samantha to life, more or less. The look of the future world is perfect, from the sprawling, clean and sterile Los Angeles cityscape, to the warm wood grains of computers and phones, and soft red tones that dominate the color palette. The high-waisted men’s trousers that are a dress/sweatpants hybrid make every day a casual Friday.
Her is forward-thinking without being irrational, everything coming together in a picture that is poignant, relevant, and real. Today, everywhere we go we see a high percentage of people buried in the glow of their digital screens, and this film renders a further immersion that feels progressively plausible in all the right ways. Look, we don’t really need Siri, it’s a novelty, but people use “her” because they think “she” makes their lives easier, or better, or more functional. What if she could do even more to fill the holes – real or perceived – in your life?
© 2013 by Blake Crane