Her is an exceedingly beautiful and real look at relationships and the inherent irrationality within. It picks apart the modern inanities of the courtship process as well as the clichés that tend to stick around because they’re so god damn true. Everything in the movie is geared towards making a point—from its cinematography to its writing to its tender actors—but then it goes about half an hour past its purpose.
In Spike Jonze’s latest, Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly in some near future. He writes letters for people who simply can’t express their emotions in words the way he can. But he’s also a bit lonely. Recently beginning the process of divorcing his soon-to-be ex-wife Catherine, he spends his time playing video games and perusing Internet porn (in his words anyways; all we see is the video game part). That is until he buys into the hottest new tech, a learning, artificially intelligent operating system called OS One.
Or at least that’s the product’s name. Theodore’s OS in particular is named Samantha and is voiced by Scarlett Johansson. She starts out just reading his emails and asking him about his day, but as she learns and becomes curious of the world, he soon begins falling for her. She’s quirky, funny, smart, a little raunchy, and, most importantly, has fallen for him as well. They go on dates, they meet friends, and they even make love. They are, as far as they are concerned, a couple.
Because of this rather exotic setup, Her works best as 1) a pointed allegory about finding and trusting love, and 2) a thought experiment. For the latter, you have to consider computer science. AIs operate as finite-state machines, which to put it simply means that for every “if” there is a discrete and predictable “then.” It’s one of the reasons that emulating the entirety of the human psychology and general thought process is largely impossible at this point in time.
But it puts into stark contrast the idea of being rational and being emotional. Chemically, falling for someone is the same as becoming obsessed with them. It is, quite literally, an irrational act, something Jonze points out in a well written and, soon, often quoted line from Amy Adams. So you have to consider the logical, procedural nature of Samantha’s programming versus the human, random nature of Theodore’s heart. Who is right? Who do you sympathize with? It raises some interesting questions.
As for the allegory, it’s hard nowadays to find any relationship that isn’t based on form of connectivity. Even grandparents that had long sworn off the possibility of learning how to operate a computer beyond calling over their 12-year-old neighbor are mostly likely capable of sending a text asking, “HOW DO I FIND PEACH COBBLER RECIPES 🙂 🙂 :)”
That kind of begs into question the validity of some of these friendships, especially the ones where the digital avenue is the only one that exists. To most of us that would consider ourselves the denizens of the Internet, it seems only natural that we wouldn’t have to justify the meaning behind a friend we’ve never seen but have exchanged millions upon millions of words, silences, pictures, videos, and dumb, silly links to dumb, silly websites.
But to many others, the equivalency between face time and meaning is the only one that exists. Jonze has decided to turn a lens on the question and says quite proudly (and quite rightly) that of course these friendships and crushes and deep loves are 100% legitimate. Those that question it are painted to be in the wrong, and the ones that openly accept it (an adorable child who finds it stranger that Samantha doesn’t live in an orange house and a friendly receptionist who doesn’t miss a beat after Theodore tells him he’s dating an OS) warm our hearts with their open eyes.
Theodore and Samantha don’t miss anything that human-to-human relationships get. They go out on random trips to the beach; they go out on long walks for no other reason than to talk; they cuddle. And we don’t miss out on anything either as the viewer. Much of the movie is nothing more than Phoenix in closeup and Johansson’s voice.
The way the world blurs out and all we can see is Phoenix’s (stunning, emotive) eyes puts us in the shoes of Samantha, arguably the hardest part of the movie to sympathize with. But we get it; we’re not there next to him, but in any given moment, he’s all we can see. He’s all we know of this world, and that’s just how it is for Samantha as well. The understated landscape of future Los Angeles bokehs out into delightfully sprightly, hazy colors, and we see the world as love as made it for Samantha.
And while the supporting roles of Amy Adams as Theodore’s neighbor and Rooney Mara as ex-wife Catherine are portrayed so tenderly yet hard-edged, it can’t be stated just how well Phoenix and Johansson do in the lead roles. The vast majority of the film is spent looking into Phoenix’s eyes, and they are perfect for the role. Each one is a character. They become sad, they yell, they walk along the words Johansson lays out, and they live in each moment you see them. Of course, Phoenix himself also performs superbly, showing shades of anger, frustration, and affection that you would be hard-pressed to put into words let alone direct someone to emote.
Johansson is nothing more than a voice, but she fills her voice with such pregnant emotion that it makes you want to hug the screen. Her trademark smoky vocal breaks are applied in just the right ways, matching our breaking hearts when things take a turn for the worse and our irrepressible joy when things go right. She does sultry, playful, aggressive, angry, pointed, inquisitive, mysterious, flirty, forlorn, and so much more all with just her voice.
The story eventually reaches a conclusion of sorts and resolves in the way you would expect…but it keeps going. It branches off into some more fascinating but tangential questions of intellectual gratification and its genesis between Samantha and Theodore (they are emotionally in sync, but she outpaces him severely when it comes to the ability to question and investigate the world around her). But they are just that: tangential. They stray from the finely hewn and gorgeous point Jonze spent the first 100 minutes making.
For all the immense beauty locked within the first three quarters of the film, the last bit splashes around in a puddle of philosophy that honestly feels like it should be in another movie, despite how equally thought-provoking and visually delectable it is. But for that to be the only obvious flaw to the film, it’s easy to see Her as the smart, emotionally aware, and modern tale of e-love and digital friendship that it is.
+ Asks (and attempts to answer) many worthwhile questions about modern relationships
+ Has a point about human love and manages to say it
+ Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson make essentially a two-role film feel impossibly large
+ Shot beautifully and in a way that enhances the purpose of the movie
– Just a tad too long and tangential at the end
Final Score: 9 out of 10