Spike Jonze is a director who likes to explore a fine line between reality and fantasy. His first film, 1999’s Being John Malkovich, found the movie’s fictional characters quite literally diving into the mind of real-life actor John Malkovich. 2002’s Adaptation presented a fictionalized version of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman contending with his twin brother, Donald (who, despite not actually existing in real life, was credited alongside Charlie for writing Adaptation). Where the Wild Things Are took a less meta approach, following the adventures of a young boy who journeys to a beast-filled fantasy realm to escape the frustrating lack of control he has over his own life.
The slightly scary thing about Jonze’s latest film, Her, is that it’s his most believable film yet. Set in a subtly futuristic Los Angeles, Her follows the life of Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix), a mild-mannered man struggling to overcome the emotional fallout of his recent divorce. Looking for some companionship, he downloads an advanced operating system for his computer that boasts cutting-edge technology: artificial intelligence. He names the OS “Samantha” (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) and becomes attached to and even falls in love with the supportive (albeit non-human) voice.
The real trick of Her is that Jonze (who recently won a Golden Globe for his screenplay) makes it believable. When you hear the premise—a man falls in love with his computer’s operating system—it sounds ridiculous. But while there’s plenty of humour and the film embraces its gently absurd elements, for the most part Jonze plays it real. At this point in history, the concept still feels like a stretch, but somehow it doesn’t feel like that much of a stretch. The film comments on our reliance on technology and the risks of letting virtual reality trump personal relationships. There are several shots of crowds walking down the street and conversing at ease with the computerized voices in their earpieces as though with another person. And while this is an unsettling sight, it’s also not exactly an unfamiliar one.
The movie makes its comments about the current breakdown of communication, but it isn’t a completely pessimistic indictment of technology, either. The film’s core story is really more about finding the necessary love and self-acceptance within yourself to live a fulfilling life. Theodore finds this comfort with Samantha, and while it may not be an especially healthy bond, it certainly allows his character to develop. This unconventional human/OS romance emphasizes Theodore’s insecurities (his fear of abandonment) as well as his strengths (his compassion) and Jonze does a beautiful job of balancing the film’s odd story elements with a true compassion for his characters. The romance between Theodore and Samantha isn’t just played for easy laughs, and it feels like there’s genuinely something at stake in this relationship.
This believability is also thanks in part to the performances, which, despite the film’s high-concept premise, are all refreshingly understated. Phoenix shows his versatility once again—this performance couldn’t be further from his combative turn in The Master or his charismatic performance as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. Theodore isn’t exactly a sad sack, but as the film soon shows, he’s a very lonely man who struggles to make true connections in his life, and Phoenix perfectly conveys his vulnerability. Johansson, too, is great as the disembodied voice of Samantha. It’s a natural and effortlessly charming vocal performance that still has a touch of the emotional remove that would come with even the most sophisticated artificial intelligence machine. I totally bought the two actors’ chemistry, despite the fact that they share no physical connection on the screen.
Her might be Jonze’s most stylistically sophisticated movie yet, hinting at its futuristic setting without bashing the audience over the head with dystopian imagery. The office that Theodore works at, in particular, is a wonderfully off-kilter and slightly fantastical environment, full of smooth edges and candy-coloured furnishings. The whole film, in fact, is tinged with a warm pink hue that feels makes it feel both inviting and a little bit melancholy.
Admittedly, this film isn’t quite as narratively compelling as some of Jonze’s others, or even some of his short music video subjects. The relationship between Theodore and Samantha is fascinating to watch unfold, but the plot feels a bit thin to sustain the film over the course of its two-hour runtime. Until the film’s beautifully understated and uncertain ending, the film began to feel as though it were repeating some of its emotional notes a few too many times.
Ultimately, though, Her is a measured and unflinching look at alienation and love. It almost defies genre classification. While some viewers might find the premise unappealling, it has a lot to say to those who are willing to listen. MMMM½