2013, R, 120 mins.
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
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
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.
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
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.