A delicate, droll masterwork, writer-director Spike Jonze’s Her sticks its neck out, all the way out, asserting that what the world needs now and evermore is love, sweet love. Preferably between humans, but you can’t have everything all the time.
It tells a love story about a forlorn writer, whose firm—BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com—provides busy, digitally preoccupied customers with personalized correspondence crafted by professionals like Theodore Twombly, played by a refreshingly rage-free and wholly inspired Joaquin Phoenix. Theodore is smarting from a marital breakup he’s not ready to process, legally or emotionally. He has a filmmaker friend, played by Amy Adams, living in his building in a Los Angeles of the very near future, perhaps 30 years from now. This is a city whose interiors are dominated by reds and pinks and salmon tones, as if the entire culture had taken an oath to view itself through rose-colored glasses.
Theodore buys the latest new gadget, the iPhone of its day. It is an advanced “operating system” that is simply a voice. Not a face. Not a body. Not a person, but a carefully rendered collection of so much intelligence, so many programmed human traits and quirks and speech patterns and interests and desires that, well, why not? Why not call her your girlfriend and take it from there? No grief; no apparent emotional neediness; no accusing glances, like the ones we see in beautifully rendered flashback, showing Theodore’s life and times with his wife, portrayed by Rooney Mara.
I love this film, and I’m one of the most technophobic and least gadget-centric people on the planet. It’s unusually witty science fiction and it’s unfashionably sincere, as well as a work of such casual visual inspiration that a second viewing of Her feels more like a first.
This is the fourth feature from Jonze, and the first in which he directs his own script. Jonze has learned well from his earlier work. He met his poetic screwball match in screenwriter Charlie Kaufman for Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, and his more recent and fiercely divisive Where the Wild Things Are sent half the audience into emotional shock and the other half into emotional shock followed by immense gratitude. Her is a more even-toned work, but not in a blanded-out way. The high-waisted beltless pants of the future alone make this film worth seeing.
Jonze works with some creatively fabulous designers, among them production designer K.K. Barrett and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, creating a futuristic L.A. where everyone seems a little calmer but a little more isolated. The earbuds in so many ears may as well be space dividers. Theodore’s path to Samantha, the operating system with the voice of Scarlett Johansson, involves a blind date with a gorgeous but touchy and insecure woman (Olivia Wilde, mercurial and striking) and a lot of blissfully easygoing debriefing with Theodore’s platonic-ish soul mate, the Adams character, rendered with unusual emotional transparency and the lightest of touches. Phoenix is remarkable as Theodore; he never rolls over for an obvious laugh. Sitting alone in his apartment, playing the latest immersive video game, he paws the air like a chipmunk as his gaming avatar burrows into tunnels. It’s a sad but truly funny image, and the film’s full of such double-sided gems.
Where does the love story take Theodore and his new thrill? Better you find out for yourself. Jonze’s truisms sometimes have a somewhat predigested ring to them (“The heart expands in size the more you love”), but as Theodore and Samantha reach a relationship crossroads, the film becomes more and more amazing in its high-wire act. It is a small film made by enormous talents working in harmony. Jonze’s first solo script is topical in the right ways, and forward-thinking in the right ways. We’re living in this enticingly lonely world, more or less, already. But does Siri really understand your needs?
Her (R) ★★★★☆