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Visionary and traditional, wispy and soulful, tender and cool, Spike Jonze‘s Her ponders the nature of love in the encroaching virtual world and dares to ask the question of what might be preferable, a romantic relationship with a human being or an electronic one that can be designed to provide more intimacy and satisfaction than real people can reliably manage. Taking place tomorrow or perhaps the day after that, this is a probing, inquisitive work of a very high order, although it goes a bit slack in the final third and concludes rather conventionally compared to much that has come before. A film that stands apart from anything else on the horizon in many ways, it will generate an ardent following, which Warner Bros. can only hope will be vocal and excitable enough to make this a must-see for anyone who pretends to be interested in something different.
In terms of ethereal tone, offbeat romanticism and evanescent stylistic flourishes, the film that bears some comparison to Her is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which dealt with the search for love, its memory or its prospect, in a similarly fleeting, lightly heartbreaking manner. The theme and dramatic drive behind Jonze’s original screenplay, the search for love and the need to “only connect,” is as old as time, but he embraces it in a speculative way that feels very pertinent to the moment and captures the emotional malaise of a future just an intriguing step or two ahead of contemporary reality.
Set in a downtown Los Angeles as thick with high-rises as Manhattan, as modernistic as Shanghai and populated exclusively with citizens both gainfully employed and well dressed (an optimistic if unplanned antidote to the recent Elysium), the film focuses intently upon Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), who is very good at his job, that of writing eloquent, moving, heartfelt letters for others who aren’t up to the task; he’s a sort of Cyrano for all seasons. With his glasses, mustache and high-hitched trousers with no belt (the era’s one bad fashion fad), he’s a bit of a neatnik and a nerd but acutely attuned to people’s inner feelings.
As it will for two hours, the camera stays very close to this well-mannered, proper fellow, who goes home to his upper-floor apartment to play a life-sized 3D video game featuring a foul-mouthed cartoon character who insults him — a poor substitute for his wife (Rooney Mara), who’s divorcing him. Quick and funny anonymous phone sex follows, but Theodore then explores a new electronic offering, an operating system (OS1) that absorbs information and adapts so fast that the resulting conversation matches anything real life can offer. Or — and this is the part that’s both seductive and unnerving — it might be even better.
The OS Theodore prescribes to calls itself Samantha. With a vivacious female voice that breaks attractively but also has an inviting deeper register, “she” explains that she has intuition, is constantly evolving and can converse so well because she has total recall and instantaneous adaptability. Samantha laughs, makes jokes, commiserates, advises and even proofreads one of his letters. Based on their (programmed) rapport, Samantha very quickly defines what Theodore is looking for in a woman, even if he’ll never know what the viewer knows, that this inviting voice belongs to Scarlett Johansson.
The man’s complicity with this new confidant is only increased after an intense, and intensely disappointing, blind date with a stunning and initially flirtatious young lady (a vital Olivia Wilde). Not only is Samantha endlessly cooperative and (literally) interactive, but her emotions seemingly escalate at the same pace as his own.
Even up to this point, less than an hour in, the film provokes many questions and musings. Can an artificial being who’s “made for you” provide greater fulfillment than a flesh-and-blood human of more erratic capacities? Is it not ideal to have someone there for you whenever you want and then not when you prefer to be alone? Does a strictly verbal relationship sustain a desirable level of fantasy while holding reality at bay? Does a virtual romance have equal value to a real one? Because Theodore and Samantha get along so well, do we, as an audience, root for this relationship to “work out”? Isn’t this electronic rapport a lot better than Ryan Gosling‘s relationship with an inflatable doll in Lars and the Real Girl? Does virtual marriage constitute the next legislative frontier?
Where Jonze goes with his intriguing exploration in the second half is both sobering and a tad soft. It’s also the place where you realize that Phoenix’s Theodore is at the center of every scene and, due to the fact that his confidant doesn’t corporeally exist, is often the only one onscreen for extended periods. This fact has compelled the director to get Theodore out of the house, so to speak, and keep him on the move, which is what provides the film with the measure of forward momentum it possesses. All Theodore needs to talk to Samantha is a small earpiece, so he often converses while walking through the city (only in the most fabulously scenic sections), on the subway, by the beach, later on a fast train (in what must have been the credited Chinese part of the shoot) and hiking through a forest. When he is surrounded by other solitaires engaged in deep conversation, Her resembles nothing so much as the final scenes of the film version of Fahrenheit 451 in which society’s rebels promenade about while devotedly reciting from banned books they’ve memorized.
Although the final stretch is devoted to the resolution of Theodore and Samantha’s intimate relationship, the dramatic limitations of the film’s presentational one-sidedness become rather too noticeable as the two-hour mark approaches. The director’s visual panache, live-wire technical skills and beguilingly offbeat musical instincts work overtime to paper over what can only be conveyed in extended conversation. (Not collaborating with cinematographer Lance Accord for the first time, Jonze benefits from great work behind the camera by Hoyte van Hoytema, while the score by Arcade Fire casts a spell of its own.) The feeling at the end is that of a provocative if fragile concept extended somewhat beyond its natural breaking point.
In a tender about-face from his fearsome performance in The Master, Phoenix here is enchantingly open, vulnerable, sweet-natured and yearning for emotional completion. Accoutered to look both goofy and cool, he is nonetheless appealing, and the actor exhibits an unprecedented openness that is entirely winning. Passages in Jonze’s writing really grapple with what people want out of love and relationships. And Phoenix, with Johansson piping in on the other end of the line, makes it all feel spontaneous and urgent.
Amy Adams is on the same emotional page as a longtime friend of Theodore who, rather too conveniently, is also going through a romantic separation.
The film is beguilingly sincere and touching in how it approaches loneliness and the compulsion to overcome it, and it asks the relevant question of whether technology fosters distance from others, helps surmount it, or both. It also inquires into the different sorts of satisfactions, and lack of same, offered by human beings and machines in an age we’ve already entered.
Venue: New York Film Festival (closing night)
Opens: December 18 (Warner Bros.)
Production: Annapurna Pictures
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Chris Pratt, Matt Letscher, Portia Doubleday, Scarlett Johansson
Director: Spike Jonze
Screenwriter: Spike Jonze
Producers: Megan Ellison, Spike Jonze, Vincent Landay
Executive producers: Daniel Lupi, Natalie Farrey, Chelsea Barnard
Director of photography: Hoyte Van Hoytema
Production designer: K.K. Barrett
Costume designer: Casey Storm
Editors: Eric Zumbrunnen, Jeff Buchanan
Music: Arcade Fire
R rating, 126 minutes
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