Bold, insightful, and remarkably positive, director Spike Jonze’s (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Where the Wild Things Are) latest offering is an unmitigated success. Her, the poignant story of one man’s love affair with his tech suite’s sapient operating system, is neither as whimsical nor as unsettling as its premise might suggest. Instead, the film cuts straight to the heart of the wonder and untidiness of personal relationships. Like all great science fiction, it presents our own world back to us, heightened, so we can examine the human experience with new eyes.
Her’s vision of the near future is a hopeful one, a refreshing contrast to the typical cinematic sci-fi tropes of dystopian societies, crumbling infrastructure, and killer robots. The clean mid-century retro aesthetic in the film’s clothing and set design—reminiscent of but warmer and more American than 1997’s Gattaca—is not only thoroughly believable in our world of cyclical artistic trends, but also lends the film a sense of homeliness and nostalgia. By establishing a future setting that feels immediately familiar to the audience, Her is able to touch on intriguing speculative questions about consciousness, personhood, and our relationship to our technology without making them the crux of the story. The film is not, ultimately, about how much the world has changed or how smart our computers are but about how we as people stay the same: plagued by insecurities, haunted by existential loneliness, and yearning for sex and human intimacy which we too often conflate to our detriment.
The film’s protagonist, Theodore Twombly, is a nerd-type without the stereotypical loser connotations, even if he does spend most of his evenings playing a holographic video game starring a rude, foul-mouthed alien brat. He’s independent with a successful career, a warm personality, and meaningful friendships. He, like most of the rest of us, simply feels alone in the world. It’s his earnest drive to fill that void in the wake of a failed marriage that gives the film its impetus and leads to its most touching and heart wrenching moments. Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of the character is grounded and genuine and breathes authenticity into a role that easily could have become a caricature of the “lonely bachelor”. Twombly is no sitcom-style mopey single or blank screenwriter’s mouthpiece. He’s a human being with all of the creative/self-destructive, curious/hesitant, joyful/despondent, loving/self-absorbed tensions that implies. It’s been a long while since I saw a character on screen I believed as deeply, much less one I could see myself meeting for drinks.
After watching Her, I couldn’t help but think back on Lars and the Real Girl (2007), a charming, affective, and unexpectedly wholesome film in which Ryan Gosling carries on an extended, platonic relationship with a lifelike sex doll. However, while the two movies do share certain ideas and broad plot strokes (as well as mustachioed protagonists), they couldn’t be much different in focus and execution. Lars as a film is more self-aware, a sort of modern fairytale about overcoming fear and grief to embrace vulnerability and human connection. While the spine of the plot is the internal maturation of its lead character, the overall story encompasses the unlikely, unbelievable, and ultimately ideal responses of the supporting cast. As a result, Lars becomes a movie directed inward on itself, an oversimplified fable from which we might draw a moralistic lesson rather than a true exploration of human relations as they are. Her, on the other hand, is not nearly as fantastic or parabolic. Its laser-focus on Theodore Twombly and his relationships—rather than on the characters with which he has those relationships—allows for a nuanced look at the beautiful and difficult reality of personal entanglements from the individual perspective. By embracing ambiguity, directly engaging the frequently messy business of sex, dependence, and commitment, Her invites the viewer to identify with Twombly, to project his or her own experience onto this kindred soul. As effective art, Her paradoxically becomes more universal in its appeal the more specific and idiosyncratic its narrative.
If the film intrigues you in the slightest, see it (but probably not with your mother). It asks more questions than it answers, but it asks them sincerely. In life, in love, that’s all we can hope for.
A few postscript notes:
1) If you’re a fan of the work Joaquin Phoenix does here and haven’t yet watched him in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, do so. That film not only sees him physically transformed, but boasts bravura performances from both him and the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman. As with many PTA pictures, it benefits from multiple viewings.
2) A nugget of behind-the-scenes trivia I find particularly interesting: the part of Samantha, Twombly’s eponymous operating system, was played throughout filming by none other than Samantha Morton (thus the name). From what I understand, it wasn’t until the film moved into post-production that Jonze decided he needed a different voice and sought Morton’s approval to replace her with Scarlett Johansson in the film’s final cut. Morton’s voice and accent would’ve brought a very different vibe to Her, but as a fan of everything I’ve seen her in, I’m hoping for the opportunity to sample her take on the role in on-disc special features somewhere down the road.
3) If you haven’t seen Her, this parody starring Jonah Hill is likely to seem surreal and creepy. If you have seen the movie, this should elicit a solid chuckle. One of the more on-target bits to come from Saturday Night Live this season.