There’s a very good chance Spike Jonze’s Her will be the most shockingly uncomfortable, stunningly beautiful, and unflinchingly poignant film you’ll see this year. Her delves deeply into themes of human loneliness, the difficulty, joy, and even necessity of interpersonal relationships, and our relationship with modern technology, and it does so in a package that refuses to merely philosophize. From a brilliantly realized near-future world to characters I won’t soon forget, Her is both incredibly weird and positively wonderful.
The Her of the title refers to Samantha, an artificially intelligent operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) that a lonely writer named Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with, and it is with those two performances I’ll begin. A lot has been made of Johansson’s award chances, and how remarkable it is that she’ll even receive consideration given that hers is a voice only role. I’m not here to quibble with any of that, but to spend too much time discussing Johansson’s merits is to ignore the remarkable performance Phoenix puts in as Theodore. Robert Redford and Sandra Bullock have received a lot of praise for their anchoring roles in All is Lost and Gravity, respectively, both movies where the actor spends most of the film the only character on screen. Phoenix may not be so visually isolated, as he goes out to public places and we see other people in the background, but he’s required to act alone for huge sections of the movie with nothing but the voice of a co-actor in his ear (presumably – I’m actually not sure of the technical details of how they shot the movie). And, all the more remarkably given the quality of the final product, that it was not Johansson’s voice. She was only brought in after the film was finished with principal photography, replacing Samantha Morton after Jonze decided the part needed a different sound. Phoenix’s portrayal of Theodore is deliciously complex, as the character can be both brooding and extroverted, eloquent and inexpressive. Some of this certainly should be attributed to Jonze’s writing and phenomenally cohesive directing work, but Phoenix has to receive a large part of the credit for this film working as well as it does.
Rooney Mara appears here and there as Theodore’s estranged, soon-to-be-ex-wife, mostly through dream sequences as Theodore remembers what it was like to be married, but the only other character that makes a meaningful regular appearance is Theodore’s longtime friend Amy, played by Amy Adams. It seems Adams’s work in the movie has been largely overshadowed in the pre-release press for the film by her co-stars, but while it’s true she enjoys less screen time (figuratively speaking, in Johansson’s case), her character is absolutely essential to the story, and Adams is brilliant in the role. It feels like a much more natural fit than her nonetheless quality role in American Hustle. And really, that’s how all the casting feels. There’s unquestionably some heavy acting work being shouldered in this movie, but not once does the strain show. All of the actors disappear entirely into their incredibly complex characters, and I can think of no higher praise than that.
Where Her really succeeds as a whole work, however, is in its exploration of human relationships. An overemphasis on theme is one of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to storytelling and the analysis thereof, but Her is a poster child for doing it right. There are some very frank discussions on the need for connection with others and the difficulty of being alone, but these are ideas shown to us far more than they are told to us explicitly. The brilliance of the storytelling here that the questions Her wants to ask permeate every aspect its world without ever feeling heavy handed or presuming to provide any more definitive an answer than “It is not good for man to be alone.”
There are a lot of moments that delve into the complexities of this multifaceted issue, and the discussion of them is better suited to a full-spoiler format, but I’ll share just one particular point here that expresses a lot of what the movie is about. There’s a point fairly early in the movie when Theodore is playing a video game (on his room-wide, holographically projected display) in which his character wanders back and forth down an empty tunnel. We come in as this is already happening, and from Theodore’s conversation with Samantha, who is watching him play, we learn he’s been at this for some time. It’s also the second time we’ve seen this game, and Theodore has yet to encounter another character.
Down one branch of the tunnel he encounters a little lumpy alien boy (think the Pilsbury Doughboy if his gut were sucked up into his head). The alien boy immediately proceeds to curse out Theodore with a repulsive string of epithets, but in a voice that’s nearly impossible not to find endearing. Later in the movie, Theodore’s telling someone about the game, and he says something to the effect of, “I love that little alien boy.” We see the game later, and the boy is just as rude and foulmouthed, but never once tries to get rid of Theodore. Theodore smiles through the whole thing.
I also need to take a moment to mention the sexual content of the film. There will almost certainly be some who call out Jonze for being too focused on sex. I was almost one of them, and make no mistake: there is some content that will make a lot of people squirm in their seats. But while I think the execution in this one area of the film is off by just a degree or two, I don’t think it’s because there too much that’s too explicit; rather, I think the film is slightly lacking in its endorsement of friendship as a legitimate form of human interactivity. Her hits audiences hard with sex, but does so intentionally to set up the later parts of the movie. What it doesn’t do is hit back quite hard enough with friendship. It’s not that the movie is trying to say platonic relationships are inherently better or more important than romantic ones; rather, it acknowledges the value of both. My quibble, I guess, is that I wanted to see just a little bit more of Theodore’s life outside of a relationship with sexual overtones.
This is a bit of a non sequitur, but I can’t finish up a review of Her without taking a moment to acknowledge the exceptional production design in this movie. There’s a 70s-meets-new-age aesthetic working that is incredibly charming. The computers borrow heavily from the design of Apple products, but add slightly sharper edges and faux wood paneling. The color palette is also very muted; it’s not that reds or greens or yellows are pastel, exactly, but more that everything has a brownish, naturalistic influence, even where the brighter colors are concerned. The design immediately confers a strong sense of both past and present in a package that’s familiar, but undoubtedly of another time. It’s the perfect match for Her’s very specific, near-future setting and exploration of themes of human experience which are both timeless and immediate.
The Verdict: 5 out of 5
Spike Jonze has crafted something very special with Her, and I’ve touched on maybe half of the reasons why. This is a very watchable movie, i.e. one that isn’t trying to be “artsy,” but it also reminds us how very powerful filmmaking can be in attempting to explore deep seeded human issues like the need for human relationships, the difficulty of maintaining them among ever-changing people in an ever-changing world, and our relationship with technologies we use every day. Her does all this without simplifying the incredible complexity of these issues through a brilliantly told, surprisingly simple story. Joaquin Phoenix has done some of his best ever work here, supported by great performances by Scarlett Johansson and Amy Adams. The production design fits perfectly, as does the soundtrack, to create a setting that feels very specific in time and place, yet evokes the timeless nature of its story. This movie will make you uncomfortable. Repeatedly. And it’s absolutely worth it.