Spike Jonze’s Kubrickian schedule makes each no release carry a level of excitement that most other filmmakers would beg to have. It also puts tremendous pressure on Jonze to perform. His last film, Where the Wild Things Are, was a mixed bag of good ideas bogged down by things that were just impossible to execute.
Her is probably Jonze’s purest film. It simultaneously captures what the future probably will be like while crafting an old-fashioned love story featuring (and I cannot believe I am about to write this without a trace of irony) the cutest cinematic couple I have probably seen.
Her also manages to raise a number of questions about our relationship with technology without being pretentious. It takes place at some unidentified point in the future where people are constantly talking in the streets to activate their tiny devices. Sounds like us, but the film never says so. There are even some rather disturbing implications about technology and what it will end up doing to us, all wrapped in a light pastel layer. Her’s points are something that need to be examined with (gasp!) multiple viewings.
Joaquin Phoenix is the man with the Golden Globe nomination, but I thought that Scarlett Johansson’s voice over role as the operating system was far more interesting. Phoenix’s Theodore is good but his character is exactly what we expect in a film like this. He’s a sort of awkward loner that is upset about his divorce. He composes love letters for a living but seems to have more fun thinking about them then actually experiencing what he’s describing. He would rather be a brain in a jar and his most intimate moment in the film comes when he’s alone in bed listening to Samantha. It’s good, but nothing about Phoenix’s performance struck me as ground breaking.
Johansson gives depth to her operating system as she learns and grows about the world. We hear her emotions without ever seeing her face. And unlike the now legendary HAL 9000, Scarlett is not without emotion. One scene has Theodore complaining that she always inhales before speaking – it’s moments like that help the performance. When Samantha (she named herself after reading a baby naming book in 2/100ths of a second) complains about the fact that she doesn’t have a body and imagines what it would feel like to have her back itch, we feel it. At her core she’s another manic dream pixie girl teaching Theodore how to embrace life. But darn it all, director Jonze premise actually gives that designation weight (maybe that’s what she was programmed to do all along?) and Johansson really makes us feel it.
It’s not difficult to see why humans can fall in love with her. In fact, it’s stated in the film that Theodore’s situation is not unique.
And that leads to the best aspect of the film. This is nominally a science fiction film, but like the best ones, that blurs. I have a feeling this will be a pretty accurate representation of a the future, even down to the high-waisted slacks everyone seems to wear. But those are just in the details. What’s great is how is explores our relationship with technology. Go out in public and everyone is already glued to their mobile devices. Losing one’s phone is a grand injustice. Like Samantha does in the film when she leads Theodore to a fair, we use our devices to help us explore new places. Her is good because we already have that relationship with our machines. As we develop AI, who says we won’t fall in love with them? What will that do to us? Jonze doesn’t answer and most of this more disturbing questions (particularly at the end) are presented with little comment. Hopefully we won’t need to look up the meaning of the film to understand it.
I really enjoyed Her. It works on so many levels – it’s creative, it’s revealing, and it’s addicting. Both Johansson and Phoenix are great in their respective roles and the script is smart without wallowing in its point. Her is a film that allows viewers to discover its layers in their own time. At least they’ll walk away after their first viewing having seen a great love story. Most romantic films these days can’t get past that hurdle. Her clears it with the precision of an Olympic champion.