January 19, 2014
It’d be easy to describe Spike Jonze’s new film, Her, in snarky or silly fashion: “Well, it’s about a lonely schlub who falls madly in love with a virtual woman.” If you immediately think of that obscure 1984 movie called Electric Dreams (or get visions of Philip J. Fry smooching a virtual Lucy Liu), then you’re the sort of sci-fi geek I respect — but let’s get all ideas of novelty and “gimmickry” out of the way right now. Yes, the fascinating and frequently sublime Her is about a man who falls in love with an artificial intelligence inside a computer's operating system, but once you get past the film’s simplest ideas, it quickly blossoms into a weird, warm, and very satisfying statement about the nature of love; how it works, why we need it, and most importantly, what it does to us.
Supported by one of the most open, honest, and oddly satisfying screenplays in perhaps a decade, at its core, Her is, indeed, about a nice anonymous nobody called Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) who purchases a super-advanced computer operating system that is powered by a self-aware — and perpetually evolving — operating system with a female voice. (Theodore is no idiot; he chooses the voice that sounds like Scarlett Johansson.) And then Theodore gradually proceeds to fall madly in love with “Samantha.”
In the hands of less inspired writer/directors, a concept like this would hit the screen like Short Circuit, the aforementioned Electric Dreams, or any other sci-fi film in which a man falls in love with a robot, and vice versa. But it’s that reversal — that the “virtual” woman also falls madly in love with a human being — that gives Her such a strange poignancy and off-kilter charm. Buried not too deep beneath a sci-fi / rom-com concept is a wonderfully insightful story about how love begins, how it blossoms, and how it manages to blow itself out. Making “Samantha” a non-corporeal “concept” of a woman is a brilliant conceit. Theodore doesn’t want to create a perfect woman, but technology has allowed him to create a woman who is perfect for him. Suffice to say that romantics of both genders will find much to appreciate in Jonze’s poetically meloncholic, low-key, endlessly fascinating screenplay.
Her is also a non-stop buffet of delights for film fanatics; Joaquin Phoenix is simply brilliant as he goes from slightly off-putting to entirely lovable over the course of the film; Ms. Johansson brings an essential sense of warmth and vibrancy to “Samantha” while using only her voice; the supporting cast does its job remarkably well (particularly Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, and Olivia Wilde); and the “feel” of the film is that of slightly advanced sci-fi mixed with a sardonic tone that never goes for the mean joke or obvious answer. I could dedicate additional paragraphs to Owen Pallett’s score or the quietly dazzling cinematography of Hoyte van Hoytema (who's work I first notice in the striking visuals of Let The Right One In), and I could note how unexpectedly funny and quietly honest this film is, or comment on how Jonze seems to get more confident and accomplished with each successive film, but I think the point is clear...
Her is a very smart, philosophical, and touching movie, and I feel like I’m a slightly better person for having seen it. Not sure you can give a film a nicer compliment than that.