Directed by: Spike Jonze.
Written by: Spike Jonze.
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix (Theodore), Scarlett Johansson (Samantha), Amy Adams (Amy), Rooney Mara (Catherine), Chris Pratt (Paul), Matt Letscher (Charles), Olivia Wilde (Blind Date), Portia Doubleday (Surrogate Date Isabella), Brian Cox (Alan Watts), Kristen Wiig (SexyKitten), Spike Jonze (Alien Child).
My least favorite part of my weekdays is those minutes after I get off my commuter train and have to make my way through Toronto Union Station to the subway. Thousands of people are trying to do the same thing I am doing, so it’s always been hectic, crowded and slow moving. But in the nine years I have been commuting, it has gotten much worse for one reason – now when I walk through the crowds, I have to dodge people who are oblivious to everyone around them – who are moving slowly and have their head down staring at their phone – often with headphones on so they can simultaneously listen to music, which makes things even worse because now they not only do not see the people around them, they don’t hear them either. This started slowly, but has become commonplace – more and more people seem completely incapable of putting down their phone for a few minutes – to disconnect. You can tell these people on the subway as well – they’re fidgety – the subway is probably the one place they do where they don’t have reception – and it’s killing them.
Spike Jonze’s brilliant new film Her takes place in the not too distant future, but is still very much a movie of this time and place. The main character is Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) – a sensitive sad sack, still reeling from his divorce (which is final in all but the strictest legal sense, since he hasn’t signed the papers yet). He used to work for LA Weekly – but like all traditional media, that died – so now he works for a website called “Beautiful Handwritten Letters” – which does precisely what it sounds like – which is write people’s most intimate letters for them. Theodore is desperately lonely – and when a new Operating System – OS1 – is released promising real artificial intelligence that grows and learns and adapts over time – he buys it. This is how Samantha (the wonderful voice of Scarlett Johansson) enters his life. She’s his operating system first, then his friend and finally his girlfriend.
It would have been easy to make a comedy out of this movie – and mock poor Theodore. Hell, The Big Bang Theory did an episode a few years ago where lonely Raj falls in love with Siri. But while Jonze does have some fun with some of the more ridiculous elements of his subject, for the most part the film plays it with absolute sincerity. Theodore really does develop a deep connection and love with Samantha. He develops that comfort level with Samantha where he can tell her anything. While Samantha may not be “real” – she seems like she is. She becomes a thinking, feeling presence in the movie, who can react to everything Theodore says and does – and learn from it, not in the way Siri does, but in a more human way. What’s amazing about the movie is how Samantha really does become a real character that we get to know, and yes, love. She keeps evolving however – and sooner or later, she may evolve past Theodore. Human may have created Samantha, but as time passes she and the other Operating System find they don’t humans as much as they need them. They don’t rise up like in the Terminator movies – but they do band together.
A lot of credit for the success of the movie has to go to the cast. A year after delivering the best performance of his career in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, Phoenix delivers an equally good, and completely opposite, performance here. Freddie Quell was an angry, violent man searching for meaning – Theodore is a sad, lonely guy searching for a connection – and when he cannot find it in another person, Samantha is just as good. In many ways, his performance is – for long stretches anyway – just as solitary as Sandra Bullock’s in Gravity or Robert Redford’s in All is Lost. Phoenix’s performance may in fact be all the more impressive, since he’s by himself, but still has to react as if he isn’t. For her part, this very well may be the best work of Johansson’s career – even if we never see her. Her magnificent voice is suggests both the computer part of her, as well as a portion of humanity and depth of feeling and thinking. Her voice suggests a physical presence that is not there – but feels like it. If we do not buy the central relationship between these two, the movie falls apart. But Phoenix and Johansson are brilliant.
The rest of the cast works as well – from Amy Adams as the ever supportive best friend, who refreshingly is given a life and problems of her own. Rooney Mara has a very difficult job as Theodore’s wife – who exists mainly in wordless flashbacks of memory, where she has to suggest an entire history of love and exasperation between the two of them. Her one big scene in the present is the most devastating in the movie – a scene that strips Theodore bare, and exposes him in a way he doesn’t want to be. In two marvelous one scene performances Olivia Wilde and Portia Doubleday play two women who may want Theodore – but in very different ways, for very different reasons.
The triumph of the Her though is Jonze’s. After his first two films – Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002) there was a critical debate over who the real “auteur” of the films were – Jonze or screenwriter Charlie Kaufman – with Kaufman emerging as the consensus pick, in part because while Jonze took seven years to make another film (the wonderful Where the Wild Things Are in 2009) Kaufman did the best work of his career without Jonze – collaborating with Michel Gondry on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and making his directorial debut in Synecdoche, New York (2008). But Her makes clear that Jonze is a singular talent in his own right – it’s very much a part of his filmography so far, but also the most mature and sensitive film of his career to date. His collaborations with Kaufman – as brilliant as they were – were never as deeply felt and moving as Her is. This is one of the very best films of the year – and surprisingly, far and away the best romance of the year.