by David Teich
Written & Directed by Spike Jonze
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Chris Pratt, Rooney Mara
Shortly after Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly finishes signing divorce papers with his estranged wife (Rooney Mara) midway through Spike Jonze’s terrific new film “Her,” he says of his new girlfriend, Samantha, “It’s good to be with somebody that’s excited about life.” Samantha, he explains, is his operating system, or OS—a disembodied voice (Scarlett Johansson) who speaks to him through an earpiece he wears at all times. Though she was originally designed to manage his computer system—organizing his emails and calendar and whatnot—their relationship has rapidly become more intimate. Theodore’s line about Samantha’s “excitement” seems ironic at first—she is not, after all, alive. And even as he speaks the line he is getting divorced, severing one of his few remaining human connections. The title of the film seems ironic too: “Her”? Samantha is not a woman. Isn’t Theodore running from reality and headlong into something artificial?
As with so much else in the multilayered “Her,” it is not that simple. Samantha really is excited about life—more so than anyone else in Theodore’s orbit. Theodore himself is downcast and subdued, hiding behind his big bushy mustache as if it were his shield against the world. But Samantha breaks through, getting Theodore to start feeling excited as well.
“Her” takes place in the not-too-distant future, or perhaps an alternate present. Theodore is a professional letter ghostwriter: If you want to write a note congratulating someone on his or her graduation or wishing your partner a happy anniversary—but you do not wish to make much of an effort—you contact Theodore, and he’ll write the hell out of the message. The fact that Theodore’s job even exists says a lot about his world: People are becoming less and less connected to each other, content to rely on strangers and machines to do the heavy lifting of reaching out to others, even those close to them.
Theodore is great at his job, sitting in his polished corporate office and getting lost in character as he dictates sentiments of praise and appreciation into his computer. To be sure, Theodore’s greeting card dictations are an affectation, dramatic monologues spoken in the voices of loved ones whose caring and appreciation are pure fiction. But he finds in his sad, cynical profession the closest thing he has to vital human connection. His marriage is ending. He and his good friend Amy (Amy Adams) have not seen each other in a while, though she emails him asking to get together, especially if he can be less mopey than he has been recently. Meanwhile, he buries himself in emails and interactive holographic video games. His sparsely furnished, heavily-windowed LA apartment hovers in the sky, surrounded by other, anonymous buildings, with no evidence of the people below. The closest thing we see to romance before Samantha is Theodore’s call to a singles line. His phone sex session goes awry when the increasingly aroused woman on the other line breathlessly introduces a dead cat into the fantasy.
That invented dead cat is actually a pretty apt symbol for Theodore’s moribund love life… until he meets Samantha. Theodore buys his new OS merely to organize his already hyper-organized virtual life. But then he chooses a female voice over a male one, and presto, Samantha is born. She promptly reveals herself to be sunny, engaging, and, despite her supposedly subservient role, shockingly independent. (She picks the name Samantha herself, and frequently takes liberties with Theodore’s emails, such as deleting all of the ones she realizes are unimportant.) Samantha does not speak in monotone, and she does not need Theodore to repeat simple phrases before she can understand them: SIRI she is not. She is true artificial intelligence, a unique individual with a distinct personality—intelligent, funny, longing for love and connection. And above all, she is inquisitive. “I want to learn everything about everything,” she says. “I want to discover myself.”
First Theodore and Samantha just talk, exploring their fears and desires. Samantha peppers Theodore with questions about his personal life, slowly getting him to open up. As their connection deepens and their desires grow, they try to find a way to make things physical. Their sex, of course, is just more spoken role-play, but it is so emotional that it does not feel that way. In one scene, the screen fades to black as Theodore and Samantha go at it, eliminating their physical separation and leaving nothing but their gasping voices. It is a far cry from watching the bewilderment vividly emerge on Theodore’s face as the dead cat lady revealed her twisted desires.
One of the film’s most inspired strokes is the way that others react to news of Theodore’s new relationship. When he tells people he’s dating his operating system, they do not call for the men in white coats. His coworker, Paul (Chris Pratt), barely reacts to the news that his girlfriend is an OS. Amy is even gently encouraging, saying that she is close friends with her own OS. The person who comes closest to expressing dismay is his ex, who tells him his relationship with Samantha isn’t surprising—he always wanted a partner, but never wanted to deal with anything real. Such reactions are an incisive commentary about how reliance on technology has wormed its way into society in an alarmingly acceptable way.
It would be easy to spout negativity about Theodore’s attachment to Samantha: A misdirection of desire for connection into an artificial relationship, an escape from real human attachments, etc., etc. And there is truth here. Yet as the film progresses, such readings seem increasingly oversimplified. Samantha is just so very, very real, with real sufferings and aspirations and limitations—real humanity. She is so real that it is hard to call Theodore’s attachment to her naïve or unhealthy. Samantha is… well, thoroughly dateable, apart from the whole no-body thing.
And Theodore’s relationship with her indeed makes him grow: He rekindles his friendship with Amy, befriends Paul, and becomes generally less morose. Samantha brings him out of himself. She is not some sinister siren out to trap Theodore in her clutches. In fact, it is her, not him, who first begins growing restless as she recognizes the magnitude of her desire for self-discovery and the limitations of their relationship. One of the most provocative aspects of “Her” is its refusal to take a black-and-white “technology-is-leading-us-on-a-path-to-isolation” stance. It’s far more complex than all that.
That complexity is what makes the film a major artistic achievement instead of just another message film. Films that explore our relationship to electronics—even excellent and widely divergent films such as ‘The Matrix,’ ‘Wall-E,’ or ‘The Social Network’—tend to fall into the same trap, methodically warning against technology’s destructive effects on human interaction. But “Her” does not settle for such pat lamentation. What the film conveys is not one broad, blanket judgment, but rather a touching, personal story. Too many techno-centered movies forget that people are individuals who react to things differently.
Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson both turn in the finest performances of their careers, which is surprising given how out of type (and in Ms. Johansson’s case, out of sight) they are here. Even Mr. Phoenix’s best roles, including those in Ridley Scott’s ‘Gladiator’ and James Gray’s recent ‘The Immigrant,’ tend to be blustery and outsized. Here he is restrained, letting his emotions subtly mount before they come flooding out. As for Ms. Johansson, she is used to being seen. Even in Sophia Coppola’s subtle-beyond-subtle ‘Lost in Translation’ (another candidate for Johansson’s best work), she lets her beauty and easy movements play heavily into her dynamic with other characters. Here she must relate to others without a body, and takes us through an epic journey of self-discovery literally without batting an eye.
Like Phoenix, director Spike Jonze, working from his own script, turns in the most restrained work of his career. “Her” shows the same wild imagination as ‘Where the Wild Things Are,’ ‘Adaptation,’ and ‘Being John Malkovich,’ but zeroes in on more deeply felt, empathetic characters. The film is simply more personal than anything Jonze has ever done. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema helps, with his emotive close-ups of characters’ faces. (A shot of Theodore standing with his head tilted downward in the shower as lines of water stream off his face like a waterfall of tears particularly stands out.) Jonze and Hoytema emphasize the persistence of heartfelt human emotion within an ocean of detachment.
“Her” could have been a sophomoric dystopian film, or just as bad, a broad comedy about an out-of-touch loser. But Spike Jonze has never been interested in simple philosophizing or easy comedy. Instead, “Her” is an intimate meditation on humanity, connection, and technology’s place in our lives. Like ‘Adaptation’ and ‘Being John Malkovich’ before it, it is a layered look at the ruts people dig themselves into, and the ways—sometimes healthy, sometimes destructive, sometimes a bit of both—they try to dig themselves out.