Written and directed by Spike Jonze
It is nearly impossible to describe the feeling that sets in almost instantly while watching Her, the newest directorial effort from the experimental Spike Jonze. Though the opening shots, like those which follow, are stitched together carefully, crisply, and beautifully, it’s not simply a blend of sleek cinematography, editing, and emoting from lead Joaquin Phoenix that sets it apart from other recent mainstream films. There is an invisible, sure-handed guiding force and confidence in those moments, an unerring and ineffable sense that Jonze knows exactly where he’s headed, how each step on this slick, slinky, zig-zagging journey fits with those before and after it. So rarely these days do we get such films, constructed with such clarity, earned confidence, and ambition; what a breath of fresh air, then, to experience Her.
Consider, here, not the setup—about a meek but not painfully shy man (Phoenix) in Los Angeles who begins to fall in love with the advanced operating system he purchases one day (voiced by Scarlett Johansson)—but the world around that concept. It is clear in the early moments that Her is set in the near future. There are no establishing shots to clue us in, no superimposed captions informing us that the story is taking place a decade, or 5 years, or 2 years from now. Jonze, instead, allows the realization to unfold calmly, as when Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly rides to work on the subway, tapping the earpiece that functions as part of his iPhone-like hand-held device, and providing voice commands to delete e-mails or respond to them later. That technology, amazingly, doesn’t yet exist in common usage, but it’s not hard to imagine this being a reality by 2020. The futuristic touches Jonze places throughout Her are never fanciful, nor do they appear ready-made to be dated in a decade. They’re always fully grounded in the current state of communicative technology, making the story he’s weaving all the more potent and immediate.
World-building aside, Jonze takes an impossible task and makes it seem all too easy. How could a concept like this work without feeling like a big joke, a put-on that might be fairly heady but somewhat at home with the Jackass crew, of which Jonze is a part? Her works excellently because Jonze isn’t using this high-concept setup to mock his leading character, or to skewer the people who Theodore may represent like an avatar. That a man could fall in love with the sentient voice of a personalized handheld device may seem like a lark, but Phoenix and Johansson combine for something truly magical. Phoenix, fresh off his physically explosive work in last year’s best film, The Master, plays a more soulful figure than Freddie Quell, but both men arguably occupy a similar plane of self-inflicted tragedy. Both crave a connection, a deeper companionship, and struggle to find it. No doubt, Theodore is more put together mentally than Freddie, but even his emotions are utilized for others; he works as a letter writer for other people’s cherished memories, a website that serves as a more centralized greeting-card creator than Hallmark. He’s able to open up, but less to real people than to what amounts to a voice in his head. In Theodore’s defense, though, what a voice.
On one hand, Scarlett Johansson delivers her career- best performance in Her as Samantha, the shockingly, sometimes uncomfortably real operating system that Theodore buys mostly on a whim one evening. On the other, it’s distressing that such exemplary work had to come in such a physically limiting role; she may kick ass in various Marvel movies, but this is the kind of performance that makes you wonder why such meaty material doesn’t come along more often for such a talented young actress. Though she always remains just a voice, Samantha is thrillingly alive, more complex than Theodore initially realizes (potentially to his detriment), surprisingly able to tap into a vast well of emotions in ways that are at once horrifying and beautiful. Jonze often avoids visualizing her presence, aside from the earpiece Theodore has at the ready, but even when we see the device that embodies her, it’s a little hard not to think a bit of HAL 9000 and his neurotic obsessions in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Samantha’s nowhere near as destructive—Theodore’s neuroses get the better of him more often than not—but the Kubrick film’s discussion of the dependence man has on technology, a bond that goes so often unspoken because of the dark truths it holds about humanity, is very much on this film’s mind as well.
That commentary is one of Her’s hidden strengths. It is a film all about technology and our infinite love affair with gadgetry. Jonze fills the picture with montages, as when Theodore reminisces about the good times and bad with his ex-wife (Rooney Mara), but as the film nears its end, those montages are collected shots of people just like Theodore: sporting an earpiece and talking out loud to no physical being. These are wanderers united by their desperate clinging to machinery. And so it’s not terribly surprising that when Theodore reveals that he’s fallen in love with an operating system, not everyone reacts in shock and dismay. It turns out that he’s not so rare: other men and women have become similarly besotted with their operating systems, their personal Samanthas. There is an inevitable next step in the evolution between the people in this film and their operating systems, but when that hammer falls, it’s no less devastating. The twists may seem logical and unavoidable, but Phoenix’s reaction is incredibly wrenching. There’s no winking here, no nudging of the audience at the goofiness of a guy falling for a computer. It’s all real.
Such reality infuses the entire proceedings. Her may be set in the future, but it is more than a hopeful glimmer on an uncertain horizon. We have Siri now; who’s to say that an artificially intelligent version of her might not be coming soon? And if it’s not from Apple, some other company will approach that frontier. In this film, Spike Jonze evinces a level of awe not only at the power of technology, but at the power of humanity. Theodore Twombly does not cut the most romantic of figures; he doubts himself, he doubts the world around him, and he often acts irrationally. But he comes alive when he talks with, cuddles with, and even sleeps with Samantha, whose consciousness evolves equally. As much as technology dominates the lives of the people in this film, it is humanity which saves them, which will push them through the darkest of moments. Her is a wistful, mature thesis on love and humanity, a wildly ambitious effort that succeeds almost primarily because it springs forth from the mind of an utterly, appropriately confident auteur. It is a startling leap forward for Spike Jonze, and one of the best films of 2013.
— Josh Spiegel