Her (2013) / Romance-Sci Fi
MPAA Rated: R for language, sexual content, and brief graphic nudity
Running Time: 126 min.
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson (voice), Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt, Olivia Wilde, Portia Doubleday
Small role: Bill Hader (voice), Kristen Wiig (voice), Spike Jonze, Brian Cox (voice)
Director: Spike Jonze
Screenplay: Spike Jonze
Review published December 29, 2013
Set in Los Angeles in the near future, Her is Spike Jonze's science fiction-comedy-romance-drama satire which follows a lonely, separated man named Theodore Twombly (Phoenix, The Master), who spends his days working as a writer of "heartfelt" letters between people who don't have the time or expressive ability to convey their emotions, which is ironic, given that his marriage has failed largely because he couldn't sustain a way to communicate these things to his wife (Mara, Side Effects) on his own. His love life takes an unexpected turn when his personal computer network gets an upgrade to a new kind of operating system, one driven by a sophisticated artificial intelligence that is catered for its specific users.
Theodore's OS is named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson, Don Jon), and her thirst for knowledge drives her to want to know everything about the mournful Theodore and his stagnant life, as well as help him to become happy and healthy enough to find love again. However, in so doing. Samantha soon begins to have feelings she thought she couldn't have for this man, feelings he begins to reciprocate. Between Samantha's lack of a body and Theodore's limited mind (at least as compared to a highly advanced computer system), making such a new kind of partnership work certainly has its limitations.
If finding a love partner through the use of a computer has become the new normal for many these days, Her posits a future in which the computer itself can become the love partner. Many people of a certain distance who meet through dating sites or other forums start out their communication through just text and phone conversations, discussing their intimate thoughts and desires to someone who had once been a complete stranger, and they develop romantic feelings toward one another despite never having met "in the flesh." So why not take it a step beyond?
Her calls into question the very way in which we all communicate nowadays. We used to write letters to each other, and now only do so when we really want to convey that we truly mean what we're about to say. Except in this future, even that aspect of intimacy can be bought through a computer purchase. Our society appears to be headed this way, as the vast majority of communication we might have with family and friends happens not through face-to-face contact, but through texts, emails, and social media sites like Facebook.
These computer devices are our instant gratification machines -- when we're lonely, we can reach out to those we love, or use them to make new friends. And these machines are becoming more sophisticated with voice commands and personal assistants like Siri. The new OS system in Her merely takes out the "middle man" by having the machine itself become a new friend, but with light years of advancement, these virtual assistants can become so sophisticated, they might not just seem like they have a mind of their own, what happens if they actually do?
What's most impressive about Her isn't that it has a gimmick through which to draw out a plot and conflict, but that this gimmick isn't actually what the film is about. Jonze would rather use the device as a mirror to reflect upon us on the nature of how society is going, as we, as a world of people, are becoming co-dependent on technology for all of our contact with others. Riding the subway reveals a full car of people, none of whom are talking with one another, each with his or her eyes glued to their phones in order to pass the time between destinations, checking emails, sending texts, playing games, and sifting through mindlessly titillating celebrity news. It's an entire city living together in body, but alone in mind.
Despite being a "big ideas" movie, Her is surprisingly intimate in its portrayal of human interactions with technology. Jonze, who would almost be overshadowed by his screenwriter Charlie Kaufman for his breakthrough films, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, gets sole screenwriting credit, and shows us all that those films were more successful due to his singular vision than just the concepts delivered by a talented screenwriter.
Most of the laughs of the film, which has enough for some to label it a comedy but plays through the conviction of its characters as a drama, comes through the knowing absurdity of the premise. Even though the characters in the film take Theodore's relationship with his OS as something odd but within the realm of plausibility, we in the audience, being years removed from the notion of such a possibility being acceptable, will still find a few of the moments absurd, though they are meant to be so. Suspension of disbelief is never shattered, because the quality of the characterizations rings a certain truth about how someone can fall in love, especially in times of dire loneliness, with the entity who will be there to listen, to guide, and to insire.
And even in comedy, there is a deep streak of sadness that underlies it, such as in a scene in which Samantha finds a woman who agrees to be a surrogate body through which Theodore can feel a physical connection to match with his emotional and intellectual one. The scene could have played for pure slapstick, but given the state of confusion and anguish for the participants, it's difficult to laugh at their follies knowing that deep down it is a commentary on the futility of making love work without a vital aspect of the connection.
Her is finely acted by a very talented cast, with Phoenix working out his inner anguish in a way that shows a surprisingly sunny side underneath all of the pent-up frustration. The female characters do take a back seat somewhat, except for Samantha, who is given a fully-rounded personality despite the fact that "she" is never seen as an actual entity other than as a disembodied voice. She's a mix of intelligence far beyond that of a living person, yet as a distinct entity, she has the emotional outlook of a child, having a difficult time trying to discern the complexities of human emotion, trying to soak it all in as a sponge, eventually confusing her as she tries to process it just like any other information she might gather. Johansson superbly gives the personality an instant likeability, with her blend of sultriness, sassiness, sensuality, and insatiable curiosity about the world she has just been "born" into.
Lost in the shuffle are two subtle yet powerful performances from Amy Adams (American Hustle, Man of Steel), who literally plays the girl next door, and Rooney Mara, as the soon-to-be-ex wife who becomes the only person who can call out Theodore for the kind of man he truly is, i.e., an emotional man-child retreating into an enormous protective shell who doesn't seem to have the will or desire to try to make things work in a real relationship during difficult times. His pre-Samantha life of video games and phone sex is evocative of a man who would rather escape than deal with the world head on. The fact that it takes computer programming to spur Theodore back to trying to live life again is just one of the film's many choice ironies.
Her is an often vulgar, but surprisingly profound look at 21st Century relationships, and kudos to Jonze for elevating himself far beyond someone who will carry the name of "music video director" any longer. He's an honest-to-goodness filmmaker, and now a fine storyteller who should command attention with each successive release. His Her is incisive, so personal in its exploration as to sometimes be uncomfortable in its capturing of the most intimate, emotionally vulnerable moments of its characters. As science fiction, perhaps much of it is implausible and idiosyncratic, but as a film about love and loneliness, Her is consummately unique, clever, thoughtful, soulful, tender, poetic, and utterly brilliant in its forward-thinking, humanistic concepts.
©2013 Vince Leo