HER by Spike Jonze – his fourth feature film in 14 years – is a completely unique movie. It’s a touching relationship drama mixed with light sci-fi and cultural satire that’s somehow brutally accurate and gently affectionate at the same time. It’s the story of this depressed writer Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) who’s in the middle of a divorce, and he meets someone who he really connects with… only it’s not a person, it’s the artificially intelligent voice in his computer (Scarlett Johansson). Yeah, he thinks it’s weird at first too, but it just happens. You can’t argue with your heart I guess.
Spending his life with his operating system has its share of challenges. He has to carry a little camera around for her to see the world. It’s awkward introducing her to people. They can’t hold hands or take a picture together and when they get it on it’s basically phone sex. They’re dealing with alot of handicaps here.
But also there’s a sort of inequality between them that makes it an odd relationship. He never holds it over her that she’s a product he purchased, and she never holds it over him that she can do many things that to him would be super powers. She can instantly read a book or find some piece of information she needs. She has constant access to all of his files and emails. This is not addressed in the movie, but surely this relationship removes all possibility of porn access, unless he has some magazines stashed in a closet somewhere. And also how are you gonna keep her away from your credit cards, am I right fellas, girls go to the bathroom in groups.
She’s way smarter than he could ever be, and not human, leading to some Dr. Manhattan in WATCHMEN style relationship faux pas. But she’s also vulnerable. As she grows she becomes more and more troubled about not having a body. So it’s not like she thinks she’s a superior life form.
It’s hard for him to tell people his girlfriend is a computer, but less so as this type of thing becomes more common and accepted. It’s technically science fiction because of the artificial intelligence, but most of the technology in the movie is just different from what we have, not necessarily more advanced. People use one cordless earphone instead of earbuds, and they listen to their texts read by a computer instead of reading them themselves, this way it’s more cinematic.
But at its heart it’s very close to the world we live in. It’s the only movie I’ve seen where alot of the background extras are talking to or staring at a device as they walk by. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration, I think it’s funny because it’s true and not usually acknowledged in entertainment. On my bus as I write this I can see 7 people around me, 5 of them are looking at their phones. That’s modern life, and not just during commutes. I see people looking at their phones during weddings. HER gives modern society a little extra satirical kick by including various services and games that the characters use to simulate normal human interactions like parenting or letter writing. It comes across so matter of factly that you could miss how sad it is that someone would need that.
It’s an accurate portrait of the ridiculous disconnectedness of modern civilization, but it doesn’t feel judgmental about it. And believe me, I wouldn’t mind if it did, because I feel the way about smart phones that bumper stickers on hippie vans used to feel about television. But the movie isn’t angry at people for being like this, it’s sympathetic toward them, hoping they’ll find what they need to be happy. Theodore has more of a chance of finding that in his phone than real people do, because Samantha can think and feel. You could make a legitimate argument for them being in actual love. The movie treats it as a real relationship, and it wouldn’t take long to rewrite it as a normal love story between humans. I guess that’s why it’s so effective. Sometimes I found myself reaching past the levels of absurdity and getting wrapped up in the emotions, wanting them to work it out.
Do you guys think it would be cool if he credited his movies as “A Spike Jonze Jzoint?” I don’t know. Maybe it wouldn’t be that cool. Just an idea. Anyway, what he does consistently in his jzoints is take completely absurd ideas and treat them seriously. “A guy falls in love with his computer” is not as crazy as “there is a room you can go in that transports your consciousness into the actor John Malkovich” in my opinion, but it could be a silly comedy and that’s not what this is. He respects the idea and wants to show us the world where it could happen. And his actors take that mission seriously too.
Phoenix is just right, something that’s gonna be overlooked after the more hot-rodding role as Popeye in THE MASTER. He seems like he’s probly just being himself: thoughtful, sincere, sentimental but often distant, prone to corny humor, having a dorky laugh. And he seems convincingly smitten with this unseen person he’s with. Partial credit should go to Samantha Morton, who was on set with him and originally was going to be the voice. But Johansson gives a real performance too. It doesn’t sound like a celebrity voiceover, it sounds like a phone conversation between new lovers.
Rooney Mara has a small but important part as Theodore’s wife who he’s trying to finalize the divorce with. It’s another angry-at-a-man role but, like in her scene in THE SOCIAL NETWORK, I sided with her. She was right.
My friends, I want to spare you any further gushing about Amy Adams. I thought she would be just a frizzy-haired supporting player in this one, turns out she’s a very substantial character, Theodore’s closest real life friend Amy. Turns out that dressed as a casual artist type she rings my bell even more than in the ’70s dresses. I’m sorry. More importantly she gives an arguably even better performance than in AMERICAN HUSTLE, though less showy, because no accent.
Her part works on two levels I think. It’s cool and true-to-life to have a male and female who are good friends but don’t want to be together, just aren’t gonna fall in love, they don’t see each other that way. But also it’s kind of a funny joke because it sure seems like they would make a great couple. They light up when they see each other, they make each other laugh, they respect and support each other’s artistic endeavors, they comfort each other in times of emotional pain, they go through similar things, including painful break ups. And instead of falling in love with each other they talk to their computers. It seems like a no-brainer for them to get together, but who knows, maybe if they tried it again some weird unexpected thing would come up like what derailed the seemingly perfect date Theodore was having with Olivia Wilde. Chemistry is complicated.
That’s a pretty funny scene. He’s on this blind date, he thinks she’s really hot, she’s all over him, and he tells her a long story about what happened to him in a video game. By the way she reacts it doesn’t seem like a joke about him being terrible at conversation. This is a normal thing to talk about in this world. In a world like this most of your stories are gonna be from simulations.
And it must’ve been on purpose that his date is with an actress who played a sexy computer program in TRON LEGACY, right?
It’s a beautiful looking movie, shot not by Jonze’s usual guy, but by Hoyte Van Hoytema, who did LET THE RIGHT ONE IN. It must’ve been weird for Phoenix to do so many scenes walking around by himself pretending to be on a date, to cut into montages. It takes place in L.A. but they shot some of it in Shanghai for a weird futuristic mix of locations. There are no flying cars, but all the men seem to wear high-waisted pants.
From the crazy premise you figure it could be a Charlie Kaufman script, but this is the first one Jonze wrote for himself. Maybe that’s why it’s more optimistic than BEING JOHN MALKOVICH or ADAPTATION. You also gotta figure it’s very personal to Jonze. For me the most emotional scene involved an apology to his ex-wife, also a writer. And you can’t help but wonder how much this movie is an apology to his own ex-wife. I don’t think you would write a scene like that if it was total fiction, you’d be too worried your ex would think it was talking to her. And it has a palpable sense of sadness over this divorce, the feeling that it needs to happen mixed with nostalgia for what they used to have.
Even if it’s not supposed to be some kind of confessional, it kind of works as one for the viewer. You watch it and you think yeah, I can be selfish like that sometimes. Yeah, I get too wrapped up in electronics sometimes, I gotta talk to more people. Yeah, I didn’t really get it back then, now I understand why she reacted that way.
Man, HER is a great movie. Original, funny, sad, sweet, true. I got no problem with Jonze taking forever to make his movies if they’re gonna keep turning out this good.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.