Is social media anti-social? Has the information age divided us as much as it has been meant to unite? Is peer-to-peer simply an ironic term or are inter-personal, face-time relationships ripe for redefinition? While these are not the primary concerns of Spike Jonze’s lovely and perceptive relationship drama, “Her,” such implications are impossible to ignore in a movie that uses innovative and unconventional methods to explore some very universal anxieties.
Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a sensitive, heartbroken man going through a difficult period in his life. Though, looking in from the outside, you may not be able to tell by the touchingly personal and thoughtful letters he writes for BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com. In a utopian Los Angeles of the not-too-distant future where contemporary life feels convenient and warm, the disaffected Theodore is a ghost writer of letters, hired to pen correspondence for other people’s loved ones. He excels in his job despite his personal problems. And while this element of Jonze’s sensitively drawn examination of the nature (and absence) of intimacy, connection and communication in the modern world is comical, it’s also brilliantly simple and effective. This is a world where people hire human beings to articulate what they no longer have the ability to express, and so much implicitly hangs on how dependent and even lazy we have become in our relationships to technology.
Coming off a protracted and painful breakup that’s about to conclude in a finalized divorce, Theodore is lonely, depressed and not himself. He often cuts forlornly to the camera roll of memories of his soon-to-be ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara). While he has caring friends—one of them being a sympathetic neighbor Amy (Amy Adams) who programs video games by day and attempts to make documentaries on the side—Theodore is both still in mourning and longing for companionship. And so something unlocks in him when he purchases a new advanced operating system—the OS1—an Apple-esque, Siri-like device with a cognizant artificial intelligence programmed to grow and evolve. Named Samantha (rendered by the disembodied voice of Scarlett Johansson), Theodore is soon delighted and intrigued by how sophisticated and intuitive she is. Not only does she organize his life, writing his emails, notifying him of every detail like a built-in personal assistant (she speaks to him via an earpiece and sees the world via a mini-camera device he carries in his shirt pocket), Samantha is a constant companion who dulls the pain of Theodore’s bruising loneliness. Becoming a genuine friend, she even gives advice on his love-life (evinced via a blind date with a dysfunctional character played by Olivia Wilde) and, like many friendships, their bond begins to grow, evolve and slowly blossom into something more.
But as with all loves that come with a swooning honeymoon period followed by a more habitual, sometimes routine pattern, their relationship grows complicated and difficult, even beyond their obvious physical limitations. In fact, “Her” is so perceptive, it spends little time with physical concerns (or even societal ones as computer love goes largely accepted) and sinks deeply into the nature of emotionally complex relationships that redefine the need for geography, let alone corporeal physics (think those that have fallen in love over chat rooms, or instant messaging or any kind of modern correspondence where being understood is perhaps the greatest emotional currency there is).
Fittingly packing in a lot of ideas about love and how technology and convenience affects our ability to communicate and connect, “Her” is an emotionally involving and wonderfully layered look at our desire to reach out and connect (and, of course, our inherent disconnection often aided by the isolating nature of technology). It’s an incredibly melancholy, intimate and yet often hilarious look at relationships and connection that provides a surprisingly great deal of insight into the human condition. It’s both sweet and considered, as well as observant about our fears, masks and growing alienation.
Lensed with comforting, warm pastels, director of cinematography Hoyte van Hoytema (“The Fighter,” “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”) has a keen eye for the movie’s soft emotional temperature. His camera, while intimate, is never disruptive. The film’s music—a gorgeous, wistful mix of melancholia and hopefulness—is bisected: the score is composed by the Arcade Fire and fellow AF collaborator Owen Pallet also contributed, but to all of the musicians’ credit, the various dreamy timbres are very much like a unified holistic piece (and it’s surely one you’ll be setting to repeat on your iPod in the months to come).
Much will be made about the intriguing ways in which traditional relationships and love may evolve in the future—the ideas of programmed devotion, material possession, being defined by what you own, loving and obsessing over those products that make life so easy, etc. That’s heady, fun stuff to unpack, and the film serves a lot of food for thought. But it’s an emotional and instinctual movie first, an intellectual one second. The drama is thankfully very much inside the here-and-now with an abundance to say about the way we communicate including what we actually hear when people talk, what we project and hone in on and more. Intellectually, if “Her” falls short of being revelatory, that’s because these insights about technology are not the film’s main focus. Tone and mood are paramount, and the intuitive director has never been one to overthink anything. In his post-Charlie Kaufman career, Jonze’s work has been refreshingly sincere, heart-on-sleeve and free of ironic distance. Humor is still an integral part of his arsenal, but it’s always personal, human and organic.
If there are issues to be found, it’s that anyone who’s been paying attention to Jonze’s work in the last few years may feel few surprises. That bittersweet longing and deep yearning for connection is a thread Jonze has been pulling at throughout “Where The Wild Things Are” and his romantic robots-in-love short “I’m Here.” All these disparate characters are trying their best to fit into a complex and scary modern world, and Theodore Twombly is, in many ways, no different. In truth, “I’m Here,” the aforementioned short starring Andrew Garfield, in many ways feels like a beta version test-run for the familiar ideas, themes and moods expressed in “Her.” That said, while it could be a dealbreaker for a small few, “Her” is easily Jonze’s most successful and fully realized film. As a self-contained piece of work, it’s immensely satisfying in its aims. While the cast is uniformly excellent, Joaquin Phoenix once again shows his versatility, going far beyond the brooding, dark characters he’s known for. His expressive range here is much more colorful and playful than audiences normally witness, and he creates a dimensional and credible Theodore. Amy Adams gets the most screen time of the physical ladies (and the “Perfect Mom” video game she works on is hysterically funny), but the movie’s unsung ace in the hole is undoubtedly Scarlett Johansson, who creates a fascinating and multilayered character in Samantha, just using the dulcet sounds of her raspy voice.
With appearances by Chris Pratt as Theodore’s boss, Portia Doubleday as a sex surrogate for cognitive operating systems, and if you’re listening closely, voice work by Brian Cox (who appeared in Jonze’s “Adaptation”), Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, “Her” covers a lot of relatable emotional ground in just under two hours: the intoxicating rush of falling in love, heartache and longing, but also the confusion and anguish that strike when personal growth isn’t in tandem with a relationship’s development. While none of these emotional beats are necessarily groundbreaking—you’d see them in any relationship movie—they are deeply felt, and the arc over which they unfold in the movie is feels effortlessly orchestral in its composition.
In a world where everything is seemingly perfect, Jonze’s film seems to suggest the more astute may feel a forlorn ache for what’s missing; perhaps something tactile and genuine. Deeply perceptive and attuned to the risks, fears, surprises and wonders of intimacy, “Her” is a vulnerable, earnest movie that strikes no false notes, never feels manipulative, and earns the sadness and reflection it evokes in its audience. Disarmingly funny, insightful and empathetic, “Her” may not see Jonze leave his current comfort zone, but the quietly plaintive film is perhaps his most grown-up effort—a tender and moving portrait that’s easy to fall in love with. [A-]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2013 New York Film Festival.