Joaquin Phoenix loves his new operating system. No, literally.
Directed by Spike Jonze
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams
If Spike Jonze (Where the Wild Things Are, Being John Malkovich, Adaptation.) hadn’t written and directed the oddball modern romance Her, then Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Be Kind Rewind, The Science of Sleep) surely would have. The film is melancholy, beautiful and quite strange—like a song Zooey Deschanel would sing. That’s a clever way of saying that some people will love it, while others will appreciate it on an artistic level without quite “getting” it.
That’s not to say that Her is a bad film. In fact, it’s magnificent in a great many ways. It’s the kind of film that lands on critics’ “best” lists. It probably deserves some Oscar nominations (or at least some Independent Spirit Awards). But it does take a certain kind of person in a certain kind of mood to really appreciate the bittersweet beauty and unconventional brilliance of the film.
For a protagonist, we get Joaquin Phoenix (as always a surly, antisocial bastard off-screen, but a fantastically emotive performer on-screen). Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a lonely, brokenhearted writer living in near-future Los Angeles. Still reeling from his divorce (for which he has yet to sign the paperwork), Theodore chooses to lose himself in his job. He works for a company called BeautifullyHandwrittenLetters.com—a cleverly conceived idea for a futuristic company that constructs handwritten letters (composed on computers, of course) for nostalgia-minded clients. Theodore spends his days composing aching love letters and sincere apologies for people he’s never met. He’s romantic enough to succeed at the job, but too wounded to go out and actually experience any of these feelings in person.
One day, on a whim, Theodore purchases a brand-new operating system for his computer. This groundbreaking computer program is artificially intelligent and programmed to respond to its owner’s needs. Immediately Theodore is taken with the voice that pops out of his ever-present earbud. Her name is Samantha, and she’s voiced with silky appeal by Scarlett Johansson. Samantha is more than just a simulated voice on a computer. She’s a constantly evolving being capable of learning, growing and—it would seem—developing emotions. Everywhere Theodore goes, Samantha is there, organizing his life, talking in his ear, watching him on his portable smartphone device.
In short order, Theodore starts to fall in love with Samantha and vice-versa. But is he attracted to her for her friendly, excitable, life-loving personality, or is this somehow “artificial” relationship simply easier and safer for the emotionally tender fellow? And lest you think this is just some chaste rom-com about a man and a monitor, think again. Her is surprisingly blunt in its sexuality. It goes there. Yes, there is sex. And it’s shockingly well thought-out. (Let’s just say that the future is going to have to weather some very bizarre fetishes.)
There are some jokes, and the film has a clear sense of humor (now-ubiquitous costar Chris Pratt provides a lot of that). But you can’t really call Her a comedy. Jonze and his camera spend an awful lot of time just staring at Joaquin Phoenix’ face while he speaks to a disembodied voice. It’s like Before Sunrise, but with an even smaller cast. The few actors who are here, thankfully, are up to the challenge. Johansson does wonders without a second of actual screen time. Her soul-searching conversations with Phoenix take up the bulk of the film. Phoenix, meanwhile, is at the top of his game, having to act opposite nothing at all—not even a CGI dragon, for crying out loud. He manages to convey a multitude of emotional levels with simply an inflection of his voice or a faint twitch of his face muscles. Cameos by Amy Adams, Olivia Wilde and Rooney Mara prove, if nothing else, Jonze has impeccable taste in women.
In different hands this narrative would be totally surreal or utterly screwball, but Jonze plays it all perfectly straight. He’s thought it all through. His near-future setting is utterly believable. Theodore plays a virtual reality game that wouldn’t look at all out of place on the floor of next year’s E3 convention. The Los Angeles skyline is jazzed up in a way that’s both alien and totally unobtrusive. (Who else thinks enough to create a futuristic Los Angeles and then cloak it all in smog?) But for all its planning, Her can be a bit chilly around the edges. That’s a function of both setting (a glossy, high-tech future in which everyone spends all day mumbling into their smartphones) and style (see Jonze’s previous films for reference).
What sounds, conceptually anyway, like a mash-up of Lars and the Real Girl and Electric Dreams (Lenny von Dohlen fans of the world, unite!) becomes an emotionally weighty, IFC-friendly examination of how relationships change people and how people change relationships. The depressed pace and queer concept won’t be everybody’s cup of tea. But in the end, it’s painfully good stuff. You may be surprised at how hard it hits you in the center of the rib cage. Nevermind that one of the participants here is a talking computer—Her knows how people in relationships feel, talk, interact, grow together and drift apart. At least until it’s time to download the next version.