Directed by Spike Jonze
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johannson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt, Olivia Wilde
Comedy, Drama, Romance
Spike Jonze has made a career out of thought-provoking eccentricity, strange tenderness, and powerhouse performances. Her is no change of pace. While both Being John Malkovitch and Adaptation found brilliance probing personal identity, infectious longing, and the delicacies of the human experience, Her strips back some of the junky, heady aspects (that comes hand-in-hand with working from a Charlie Kaufman script) to explore similarly heavy themes in this streamlined and entirely esoteric masterpiece.
In Her, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) lives in the not-so-distant future of Los Angeles, a place where human interaction has nearly become obsolete. As Theo bumps through any given crowd, the many commuters he passes each have next-gen devises stuffed in their ears, reciting emails, updating global news, and dishing out the latest gossip scoop. For Theo, these future ear-products (which will likely be marketed in the next decade or so) are about as exciting as hanging out with your iPhone is nowadays, but it’s just about the only contact he’ll have all day.
Rather than paint him as a pathetic bumbleite, Jonze allows us to find ourselves in Theo. His crippling loneliness is an invention of instantaneous “contact” as the new highest order. Instead of bringing us closer, all this connectivity has led to a devolution of what it means to actually connect. When people become as dismissible as closing out of a browser, what it means to connect with someone has fundamentally changed.
A scene where a sleepless Theo voice “connects” with an equally restless vixen named SexyKitten (voiced by Kristen Wiig) sees a distant, instant voice embarks on a cat-based sexual tirade, get herself off, and bail out of the conversation. It’s evidence of a society that has ceased to be such. Society quite literally means “a group of people involved with each other through persistent relations.” [Wikipedia] This is no society. We need look no further than our own social media culture to see that this era of emotional distancing and the end of society is already upon us.
By day, Her‘s Theodore occupies himself working at a custom, hand-written card agency where he drafts letters “from” his clients to their loved ones. When an anniversary comes around, a husband pays a premium price for Theo’s handiwork. Christmas time? Theo’s writing thank you cards to Grandma. At that high school graduation, it’s not Dad who’s penned the heartfelt and tender note but Theodore Twombly, sitting in his cubicle. Theo’s got a preternatural knack for emoting warmth and his outpouring of caring sentiments put those buying Hallmark cards to shame. How tragic though that he’ll never meet these people he’s writing to. Almost worse is the fact that his clients need rely on him at all. Everywhere he looks, Theo faces a society that has come so far as to outsource emotion.
Enter her. She isn’t really a she though. She’s an advanced operating system (like Mac’s OS X or Windows) specifically designed to match Theodore’s needs. Imagine Apple’s Siri except everyone had a different one customized to their personal preferences. Voiced to perfection by Scarlett Johansson, this OS takes the name Samantha after “thumbing through” a book of baby names (a feat achieved in a mere microsecond) and begins to evolve beyond her wildest dreams, all the while stoking an accidental romantic relationship with Theodore.
Having closed himself off to the world after lifelong lover Catherine (Rooney Mara) set the scene for a divorce, Theo is a man halved. In relationships, Her reminds us, we pour ourselves into our counterpart and when that union ends, we lose something of ourselves. In the aftermath, we’re left haunted by these ghosts of lovers past. But as Theodore begins to unexpectedly fall for his OS, his haunting memories of Catherine change their tune. The melancholy melts away and the future becomes an opportunity rather than a sentence.
The early Sam is like a child, reaching out and trying to understand the many unexplained mysteries of life. Each day, her self-awareness and curiosity grows and she soon discovers the many wonders “surrounding” her. In Sam’s perpetual bewilderment and glowing enthusiasm, Theodore begins to rediscover his own love of life.
The romance that unfolds between Theodore and Sam may prove difficult for members of older generations or those with limited imaginative capacity to grasp (“He’s fallen in love with a computer?”) but for those willing to stretch their minds and let in something new, they’ll find an entity surprisingly earnest and exceptionally affecting. When this bi-species couple “consummate” their new relationship, the screen goes black and we’re left with a scene unspeakably powerful. Theo and Sam let each other, with moans of belonged need and physical desire, with such palpable love and affection that it’ll warm and break your heart simultaneously.
As she grows, Her gets more complex and begins to dig into some deeper issues of what it is to love and be loved. How much of love is about holding on and how much is letting go? With a cast spilling with talent, standout performances flow from everyone. Phoenix and Mara perfectly encapsulate the trauma of evaporating passion, while Amy Adams and Chris Pratt provide the necessary shoulders to lean on. Even Olivia Wilde as a nameless blind date turns in a quick but potent performance. But amazingly, the tippiest of the tip of the hat goes to Johannson as her performance here is a career best. Showing a range of emotion unthinkable for a limited performance of this nature, what Johnasson communicates with her voice alone provides some of the most commanding work of the year.
Anchored with a cast this talented that are each putting their all into each and every scene, Her is lightning in a bottle. Instead of feeling like this future world is strange, it feels entirely practical, a slightly scary yet peculiarity hopeful fact. And however weird the concept of falling in love with an operating system seems, when we’re in heat of the moment, it never feels weird. It just feels right.