Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Chris Pratt, Portia Doubleday and Scarlett Johansson
Written and Directed By: Spike Jonze
The iPhone app Siri, a female-voiced artificially intelligent personal assistant, debuted in 2011 to the world’s wonderment. It was like something out of the future – you could have a human conversation with a “woman” who lived in your phone. Spike Jonze’s new whimsical sci-fi love story Her takes this idea one step further – what if this disembodied voice developed a personality to have an intimate relationship with its user? The OS1 (Operating System 1) in Her is known as Samantha and she has the sultry, soothing voice of Scarlett Johansson complete with a sense of humor and a loving investment in the well-being of her customer. Both a brilliantly satirical look at how technology adversely effects our human interactions as well as a discourse on the nature of love, Her is one of the most unique, clever and timely movie in years.
Set in the not too distant future of Los Angeles, Joaquin Phoenix stars as Theodore Twombly, a lonely writer going through a tough time after being left by his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara). Theo works for a company called BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com where he writes love letters for other people. He purchases a newly invented OS designed to meet his every need, but before his computer can tailor-make his assistant, it just needs to know a few questions – “Are you social or anti-social”?, “What is your relationship like with your mother”?, and finally “Would like a male or female voice”? Still pining away for his ex-wife but destitute enough to interact with another woman, Theo chooses female. Out comes Samantha and what begins as friendship blossoms into the most affectionate relationship Theo has had with a woman since breaking up with his wife.
Her is about many things, exploring a vast amount of themes and ideas, but essentially this is the story of the conflict between technology and reality. By nature, technology is perfect – it’s sexy and sleek, we’re seduced by it. Reality is growing older, people leaving – humans are flawed creatures but technology can’t hurt you emotionally. Can it? Turns out that like all things, technology has its glitches too, especially as it starts to develop and simulate with humanity – ever becoming realer and realer. Samantha begins to take on the characteristics of a living, breathing human complete with emotions like jealousy, anger and yes – sexual desire.
Writer/director Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) has created a film flowing with thought-provoking questions and heavy emotion but at the same time is a bitingly funny satire. It isn’t specifically stated what year the film is set in, but it’s reasonably only 10-15 years from now. Technology has impressively improved (there’s no more texting or typing – everything is voice activated) but we’re not talking flying cars or robotic butlers. The innovations presented are completely feasible and perhaps inevitable aside from the fact that LA now has a full-fledge subway system – no need to drive around LA? I don’t buy it.
One of the funnier running gags features a first-person video game controlled by hand movements which features a character (voiced by Jonze) who profanely insults the player. There’s a telling and almost eerie scene where Theo is sitting in his apartment having a three-way conversation with the video game avatar and Samantha. They’re all having a good time and shooting the breeze, but you can’t help but realize that he isn’t actually talking to anyone – Theo is in that room all alone.
Phoenix is fantastic as Theo, he gives a reserved performance as a timid man bewildered by life – especially by his new relationship with Samantha. His wife has left him for reasons that aren’t entirely clear and there’s a pain and loss which Phoenix conveys through his eyes and facial expressions alone. As with last year’s The Master in which Phoenix played another emotionally damaged character but of a completely different sort, he’s proving to be one of the best actor’s of his generation.
A solid supporting cast of women run the gamut of Theo’s relationships with the opposite sex. Mara as Catherine is seen mostly in flashback montages, but she does get one scene to shine. Amy Adams is delightful as Theo’s best friend and confidant, Amy. We get a will they/won’t they vibe from their two characters – but with Amy also spending time with a male OS of her own, they’re both too distracted by the “people” in their computers to notice what’s right in front of them. Olivia Wilde is amusing as Theo’s drunken blind date – one that doesn’t end well. Then there’s a phone sex scene in which Kristen Wiig (voice only) plays a character with the moniker SexyKitten whom engages in a wild session with Theo as he lies in bed with an earpiece. While this scene isn’t in any way integral to the plot, it’s one of many hilariously bizarre moments of pure absurdity which Jonze does so well.
Most notably, there’s Johansson as Samantha. Johansson has been deemed ineligible for an Oscar nomination but I’ll be damned if she doesn’t deserve one. It’s pretty remarkable that we feel like we get to know Samantha even though she never appears onscreen. At times, Samantha comes across more human than the women of flesh and blood.
As good as Her is, there are pacing issues in the third act as the film becomes less focused and as a result starts to feel overlong. This might be a problem that’s redeemed upon a second viewing of the film, but the final act is somewhat meandering, losing its flow and becoming hard to tell exactly where the film is going. Luckily, it does end on a bittersweet, yet high note.
Her is melancholy and wickedly funny, sweet and sad, and as is to be expected from once of the most exciting writer/directors working today, a one-of-a-kind experience. Though a third-act stumble prevents the film from being a crowning achievement, there’s just so much more to take in and digest here than your average film – with a narrative that’s open to multiple interpretations. Her delivers the type of cutting-edge cinema that more filmmaker’s should strive to achieve. Like Theo and and the virtual women of his dreams, it’s a film which you’ll connect with.