A film review by Craig J. Koban January 17, 2014

 

RANK:  #5

HER jjjj
 

2013, R, 120 mins.

 

Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore  /  Scarlett Johansson as (voice)  /  Amy Adams as Amy  /  Olivia Wilde as Blind Date  /  Rooney Mara as Catherine  /  Portia Doubleday as Isabella

Directed by Spike Jonze

In the absolute wrong hands, HER could have come off as laughably misguided, unintentionally amusing, or, even worse, creepy as hell.  

Alas, in the capable hands of director Spike Jonze (directing his own script for the first time ever), the film manages to come off as something more unconventionally meditative, soulful, and surprisingly touching.  HER deals with one of the most unlikely and improbably relationships I’ve ever seen in a film, one involving a man falling in love with his…ahem…computer’s artificially intelligent operating system.  The miracle of the film is that Jonze makes this relationship as all encompassing and relatable as any two-person, flesh and blood love story, which is to his ultimate credit. 

Beyond being a romantic drama, HER is also a near-future sci-fi parable, and combining those two seemingly divergent entities is a tough and risky gamble, but Jonze – using a level of headstrong ambition and gutsy confidence that he’s displayed in past films like BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, ADAPTATION, and WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE – manages to find a manner of making it all coalesce with an ethereal fluidity.  The film introduces us to a lonely introvert, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), who lives in this futuristic society as a writer of handwritten letters (essentially, he pens letters for people that hire him when they are at a loss for words as what to express to their own respective loved ones).  While he seemingly enjoys his work, Theodore’s social life is a wreck.  He’s going through a nasty divorce with his wife (Rooney Mara) and rarely ventures outside of his apartment to spend time with any discernable friends.  He just seems to have lost his ability to form new ties with people. 

Something, though, catches his fancy one day, when he sees an ad for a brand new consumer product, an artificially intelligent and self-aware operating system, or OS.  Intrigued, Theodore purchases one and promptly installs it.  What emerges afterwards is a female voice (Scarlett Johansson) that's astoundingly humanlike in every which way possible.  Samantha sounds like any woman would and, best of all, she learns on the fly as a real person would, which makes her interactions with Theodore – and their shared, learned experiences – feel all the more tangible.  The more time Theodore spends communicating with Samantha about…everything…the more he begins to fall in love with her.  Since Samantha herself (or should I say itself?) can process new information about the human condition at an astronomical rate, she too begins to develop a deep love for Theodore.   

 

 

Yet, how can a relationship like this be considered true love?  Doesn’t love also predicate an actual physical relationship between two people beyond an emotional bond?  In a truly fascinating scene, Samantha decides that in order to fully explore her relationship with Theodore (beyond the phone sex type intercourse that they’ve been partaking in), she hires a human sex surrogate for them; she will not communicate in anyway with Theodore, but rather just facilitate Samantha’s need for human contact with Theodore (via an earpiece, Theo can hear Samantha talking to him at all times making love to the surrogate).  Alas, Theodore finds issue with Samantha’s highly unorthodox plan.  Compellingly, he seems to prefer his ties with his operating system more than he does with an actual woman. 

HER, at least on paper and based on what I’ve described, sounds nuttier than a proverbial fruitcake.  Yet, Jonze is adept enough as a shrewd and cunning filmmaker to not allow the film to devolve into something unsavory or ridiculous.  Like great examples of speculative science fiction, HER has legitimate ideas and topical themes at its core, like how we as people have become increasingly – and alarmingly – reliant on technology to the point of it eroding what little we have left in the form of human ties.  It presents a futuristic society numbed into submission, showcasing people wandering aimlessly through the crowded streets, talking into their ear pieces and their OS more than they do with those around them.  Theodore’s obsessive link to Samantha makes him feel like he’s connecting during his post-divorce funk, but it’s paradoxically segregating himself from warm and nurturing human contact.  Even one of his friends, Amy (a delightful Amy Adams), another recent divorcee, seems to have an unhealthy fixation on her own OS.  How sad, indeed, that these two lost souls can’t find one another in their own shared misery because they’re both too absorbed in their own respective artificial relationships. 

For the most part, Joaquin Phoenix has to act in the film playing opposite of no one, and a weakly defined lead performance here would have all but subverted the emotional and thematic undercurrent of the story.  Yet, Phoenix brings such a level of wounded sincerity, timid vulnerability, and awkward charm to his role that he helps to immediately ground us in this out-there premise with a real veracity.  He brings an instantaneous credibility to an otherwise fantastical film that makes us easily buy into it.  Johansson – never appearing on screen once – arguably gives her finest performance of her career as Samantha’s voice, as she has to verbally relay her own character’s whirlwind emotional growth.  Because Samantha can process limitless amounts of information, she learns at alarming rates, and in the process learns how awkward and complicated love can be.  Johansson creates a character that’s as memorable, relatable, and well developed as any corporeal one that could have been on screen in HER.

Thankfully, Jonze doesn't let the film’s futuristic trimmings overwhelm the narrative.  The future world of HER is suitably low-key as to not draw too much needless attention to itself, and he suggests a world of tomorrow with subtleties in fashion and production design (all men seem to wear high waist pants and collarless shirts, and the skyline of L.A. looks much as it does now, but with a few modifications here and there).  The temptation to utilize obtrusive CG effects to envision vast cityscapes must have been there for Jonze, but he wisely knows that the core of this film – and good sci-fi – is in its what it’s trying to say.  As a result, HER comes off as more personal, intimate, and involving than most other recent genre examples. 

HER is a film that’s continuously provocative on so many inherent levels.  What it does is not easy.  It takes a premise as old as the science fiction genre itself – machines that learn to become sentient – and radically retrofits it into something daringly refreshing and new.  Again, HER is as risky of a film as it is a fiendishly clever one; risky in the sense that, if improbably handled, could have left a real bad taste in filmgoers’ mouths.  Yet, HER emerges as a tender ode to one man’s isolation and despair and his attempts to connect with anyone…or anything.  In an endearing manner, Theodore and Samantha both learn the importance of what it means to be human through their unconventional love and courtship.  Best of all, Jonze places an uncommon level of trust and faith in his audience to take the journey down his film’s captivating rabbit hole and never once condescends down to them with easy and cheap emotional payoffs.  

That’s the mark, I think, of a truly great film.  HER is one of them.

  H O M E