Spike Jonze's 'Her' is a tender, funny examination of human - and non-human - relationships
Her Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Spike Jonze
Screenplay: Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Chris Pratt, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Matt Letscher and Portia Doubleday
Rated R / 2 hours, 6 minutes
January 10, 2014
(out of four)
It would be easy to misinterpret Spike Jonze's Her as being about disconnection. And indeed many have gone ahead and done just that, lumping it in with the myriad films that have commented on the presumably fraying bonds of human connection in a digital, tech-reliant 21st Century milieu. It's easy to see a movie about a lonely man who falls in love with his operating system and consider it along those same lines. But in truth, this movie is the exact opposite.
Her is explicitly about the way connections form between people - or, as the case may be, between beings of any kind - and the way relationships develop. That the romance in question is between a human and an artificial intelligence is just a detail; the film never views the relationship with mockery. The fact that Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix, following The Master with another standout performance) forms such a deep bond with his new O.S. is not considered sad or pathetic. Instead, there's a sense of life-altering ecstasy that sets in as the bond between the two - Theodore and Samantha (voiced with a stunning range of emotional complexity by Scarlett Johansson) - evolves into something even deeper.
It's true that Theodore is something of a social misfit who has largely retreated from regular social interactions in the wake of his soon-to-be-finalized divorce, and from what we later learn both about him and his marriage, his approach to relationships has been mired in a state of arrested development. So it's not just anyone who falls for a computer - it's specifically the type of person who might respond to a different kind of emotional engagement. Like millions of others (I should rephrase and admit, "like millions of us"), Theodore finds it difficult to connect with most people. Which is what makes his emotional awakening with Samantha so powerful - rather than using it to underscore how disconnected he is, Jonze uses the relationship in a celebratory way. Theodore is practically reborn. Her acknowledges the character's aloofness - his inability or unwillingness to assimilate into mainstream life - but it's not a result of this computerized world, as would normally be the case in a more ominous or dystopian interpretation of the same premise; on the contrary, technology is Theodore's solution. His way in to a life worth cherishing, not merely an escape.
No doubt the film is full of commentary about modern life - technology's place in our lives (both functional and emotional); the ever-changing ways in which people communicate with one another - but it doesn't function (at least not primarily) as a satire, nor a cautionary tale, nor an indictment. It is a reflection, and in it Jonze finds joy and sadness, freedom and confusion, love and heartbreak.
Expanding beyond the central relationship itself, the film as a whole is ostensibly about various forms of emotional expression, aided by technology or otherwise. Theodore works as a writer of personal letters, a sort of emotional conduit from one person to another. There are some people whose letters he has been writing for years; he's been there for every step of their relationship as it has bloomed and matured, or he's even had to facilitate its end. In a sense, he is to his clients what Samantha is to him - a faceless but nonetheless very real emotional intermediary. He and Sam aren't so very different after all.
The earnestness with which Jonze handles the bond that grows between Theodore and Samantha speaks volumes about how he views the relationship. One crucial clue comes midway into the film, as Theodore's best friend Amy (Amy Adams) - the more socially engaged and well-adjusted of the two - confides that she, too, has become close with her operating system, though in a more platonic sense. There's a great conversation between the two old friends where they warmly, cheerfully gab about their forays into this bold new frontier, and how authentically human their new relationships feel.
Even the movie's external details are revealing - the title, emphasizing Samantha as a person; or even the subtitle: not a film, or a picture, or a joint, but "A Spike Jonze Love Story." He treats it with all the care and empathy that would be expected of any traditional romance.
The film's setting is a recognizable future, colored with pastels but dipped in a brown Los Angeles haze (a result of K.K. Barrett's understated but extraordinary production design), a bustling world in which advanced A.I. has become a deeply ingrained piece of the cultural habitat. (The men are wearing higher-wasted pants, too, so that's something to look forward to.) The world feels so tangible that the progression into human/O.S. relationships feels like a natural one. There's a great moment where Theodore's friend and co-worker Paul (Chris Pratt) and his wife invite him for a day out together with his mysterious new girlfriend; Theodore has to confess that Samantha is an O.S. "OK, cool!" Paul casually responds, and that's that.
The film's inherent acceptance of this coupling - and of love and genuine emotional connections in virtually any form - is underscored both by the relationship's normalcy and by its similarity to other, "real" relationships we see elsewhere. We see the ways in which Theodore's relationship with Samantha mirrors that of his marriage to Catherine (Rooney Mara). And as things progress with Samantha, we see that this relationship is just as prone to ups and downs, just as messy, just as full of passion and just as full of difficulty. Her is incredibly funny at times and strangely erotic at others (sometimes both at once), but what really sets it apart is the way it uses its premise to get at a particular truth about how we connect, no matter what kind of world - present or future, analog or digital - we happen to live in.