Editor’s note: Our review of Spike Jonze’s brilliant Her originally ran during last year’s NYFF, but we’re re-posting it now as the film opens tomorrow in wide release.
A lonely man meets an unattainable woman, falls head over heels in love, and is forced to grow through the trials of their romance – it’s a story as old as time, but director Spike Jonze gives it a fresh, timely update with his Her, imagining said unattainable woman as, well, not even really a woman, but a highly intelligent computer operating system. Modern love is complicated.
The twist of Her, however, is that Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix, just plain heartbreaking here) and Samantha’s (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) relationship is prone to the same troubles and anxieties as any other romantic bond (all-human or not), and its plot is moved along by very recognizable twists in their road to (maybe) happily ever after. Sure, Her is about a guy who essentially falls in love with an ever-evolving piece of artificial intelligence meant to help sort his email and keep track of his calendar, but it’s also a deeply relatable love story about falling in love with anyone (or anything).
Haunted by his beloved soon-to-be-ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) and the demise of their marriage (he “hid himself” from her, perhaps the most heartbreaking reason for a break-up imaginable), Theodore is plagued by gauzy, dreamy memories of their time together that transition from bliss to their wrenching last days. The memory sequences work to full effect, which makes Catherine’s eventual, “present” appearance jar, though it does lead to one of the most darkly funny moments of the entire film (a horribly awkward first date with the underused Olivia Wilde, however, takes the cake for most mortifying and amusing Her sequence).
Theodore isn’t just stalled out when it comes to romance, though, he’s also stuck in a dead-end job that involves him penning other people’s love letters (no, it doesn’t get more tragic than that). While Theodore excels at his work, he’s clearly still reeling from some sort of sacking that forced him out of a more creative and intellectual gig, and he spends his free time playing highly immersive video games and just being a bit of sad sack. His decision to purchase OS1 is a bit spur of the moment, something to do, though it changes everything for Theodore almost immediately. From the first moment the bright Samantha (a name she picked for herself the second Theodore asked her what her name was, aided by a zippy reading of a massive baby name book, that’s just how curious and quick Samantha is) begins organizing Theodore’s life, she has charmed him (and us) utterly.
While the romance and emotion of their pairing eventually feels (almost painfully) real, the leap between operator and operating system to lovers is far too swift – it seems to take just one late night chat to push Theodore into a state of incandescent romantic happiness, the kind that leads to people spinning around in public places and generally acting emotionally drunk (a form of socially acceptable insanity, as Amy Adams’ character, also named Amy, later tells us). Jonze’s film was infamously edited down from a much longer cut, and it seems apparent that the first act might have been victim to some overly snappy chops (if a director’s cut is ever made available, we’ll be the first ones in line to see it). Fortunately, the later portions of Theodore and Samantha’s relationship satisfy, just as their beginning feels empty and unearned.
Paradoxically, while Jonze’s film finds the relatable aspects of Theodore and Samantha’s relationship and mines them for all they’re worth, Her is at its best when it knowingly acknowledges the inherent weirdness of the relationship, and the few bits he drops about other operator/operating system romances and the like are few and far between, making them even more tantalizing to the audience. Even Amy eventually embarks on a relationship with her own operating system – a friendship with a lady voice named Allie – that helps heal her up after her own upheaval, a compelling counterpoint that’s barely fleshed out. Adams, however, does beautiful work here, and what’s lacking in her on-screen story is helped along immensely by her ease at conveying emotions with small facial expressions and knowingly delivered lines.
While the film is emotionally rich, what’s most impressive about Her is the world that Jonze and his team have built for their characters to exist within. Set in the near(ish?) future, Her imagines Los Angeles as a new wave Shanghai, all skyscrapers and bright lights and working mass transit system. (The film does utilize a number of existing LA locations to aid realism to its futuristic pieces – including the neon lights of Koreatown and the space age curves of Walt Disney Concert Hall.) Costumes are crisp and neat (high-waisted pants appear to be all the rage for men), landscapes are clean and sanitized, and there’s an absolute sense of disconnect and loneliness (and, yes, everyone is constantly engaged with their own phones, though they seem to be based on audio directives, no one is ever typing). It’s the perfect setting for Her, and it’s one that Jonze should return to – and soon.
It’s all in the details – Theodore’s nifty rigging of his shirt pockets with large safety pins, placed so that the lens of his phone can peek over top, allowing Samantha to see the world around him with ease, is one of the most charming and understated bits of the entire film. Jonze has built a world here, and while its surface is cold and impersonal, underneath it’s nothing but a big, beating heart.
The Upside: Phoenix gives a heartbreaking and lovely performance as Theodore, Johansson develops a fully realized character just through voice work, stellar supporting work from both Adams and Pratt (who charm in very different ways), a stunningly crafted piece of world-building, emotionally rich and relatable.
The Downside: A choppy first act that seems to be the victim of over-editing, a heavy middle act that frequently drags, and not enough humorous plays on the actual intricacies of the relationship at hand.
On the Side: While the news that Johansson replaced Samantha Morton has been widely reported, many people may have forgotten that Carey Mulligan was originally cast in Mara’s role.