Love has to be the most complex human emotion. In the broad spectrum of everything we feel as creatures, love leads to the most soaring highs and crushing lows we can experience. With every firing synapse in our brains, love takes over us and commands that we adhere to it’s will. We spend our whole lives searching for it, assign supernatural properties of fate and destiny to it, and when we lose it we feel like we can never truly be whole again. How can one possibly recover from having attained that greatest prize in life and lost it? That is just one of the many questions director Spike Jonze poses in his existential almost-sci-fi love story Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson.
In many ways, Theodore Twombly (Phoenix) is a man who lives and dies by his emotions. He works at BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, a website in this indeterminably distanced future that does exactly what you think it would. Customers hire Theodore and those like him to compose personal and loving correspondence to the loved ones in their lives. He spends his days dictating to his computer the more intimate and passionate details of young couples just starting their journey together, or a husband and wife who have been together for decades. It sounds like the most personal, yet lonely job you could possibly have, and it helps set up the basis for who Theodore is. A quiet, unassuming and empathetic man who himself has experienced loss first hand.
As he spends his days in an office toiling away over other people’s love-lives, Theodore’s nights are equally lonely and distressing. He works perfectly as a gripping look into the direction we as a society are heading with our dependence on technology and social interactivity in the palms of our hands. His daily train rides are spent not conversing with those around him, not watching the scenery as it speeds past out of the windows, or even sitting in quiet contemplation. He is always talking to his own personal operating system through what appears to be a futuristic smart phone that has become an all-in-one device. He gets news updates, is read emails and receives voice messages from missed calls, all while ignoring the world around him. So when the opportunity arises for Theodore to purchase a brand new Operating System, one that is a first of it’s kind that itself is a fully aware artificial intelligence, he naturally makes the leap into the unknown, and his life is never the same again.
At it’s heart, Her is not just a film about unconventional love, but about the ultimate question in life of who we are, and it’s about self discovery. When Theodore upgrades his life with this new operating system, he is first asked to answer a small sample of basic life questions, but the program is doing much more work than the surface would suggest. Taking into account his vocal inflection and hesitations, the system adapts to his lifestyle and creates Samantha (Johansson), who is instantly full of discovery and wonderment. Theodore begins to get acquainted with his new program, and the chemistry that forms between the two happens swiftly, and is infectious. The two share jokes in an incredibly charming scene where Samantha probes through Theodores personal files to help him better organize his life.
The idea of an artificially intelligent, self-aware operating system is unique enough, but as the film progresses and Samantha begins to discover more and more about herself, her role in Theodore’s life, and even how she fits into the human condition, the two begin to form a bond that feels equal parts brand new and experienced. The two share so much of Theodore’s life together, she’s with him wherever he goes, and he soon finds himself speaking to Samantha for no reason at all, other than to simply enjoy her company. As the two grow closer and the foundations of love begin to form, I never even began to question the relationship, if it was weird or unorthodox. They just seemed to work perfectly together in the most unique way.
There are so many small moments of Her that add to to an amazing and unique film-going experience, and Spike Jonze shows that he has progressed beyond the brilliance he’s already displayed in films like Being John Malkovich and Where the Wild Things Are, and delivers a film so intimate that at times it even feels a bit intrusive watching it. Technology has already become to ingrained into our DNA in the present day, that a world where computer programs can be living consciousnesses and even have romantic relationships is somehow plausible. In a particularly brilliant moment in the film, Jonze portrays a moment of pure passion between Theodore and Samantha without any footage being shown. It’s deftly handled, and probably the pivotal scene in the entire film, which left an indelible impression on me.
Joaquin Phoenix puts on a tour de force as Theodore, often only working opposite a small piece of metal that represents Samantha’s presence outside of their home, and most times simply by himself. I remember thinking how sad it was when Phoenix announced his retirement from acting, and it was due to performances like this that I felt we were losing a true artist in an increasingly watered-down pool of male leads in Hollywood. Thankfully he’s back and better than ever.
However, as great as Joaquin Phoenix was in Her, he somehow managed to be overshadowed by a simple voice. Scarlett Johansson displays a level of acting that she hasn’t ever shown before, which is a considerable statement, as she’s always been extremely talented. It continues to be a true shame that the governing bodies behind the most prestigious awards in cinema refuse to acknowledge acting unless it’s as clear as day to them, front and center with a lens pointing at the performance, because this performance deserves every award available for 2013. Samantha is charming, intelligent and intimate all at once, and her journey to a fully realized life is a rocky ride worth taking.
Amy Adams also turns in her best work in 2013, despite garnering very high praise for her performance in David Russell’s American Hustle, as Theodore’s neighbor, aptly named Amy. She, along with Rooney Mara and Chris Pratt, add the only sizable supporting roles in Her, but all play their roles well. Rooney Mara steps away from her Dragon Tattoo, to an even more devious role as Theodore’s recently estranged wife Catherine, and one of the main forces of resistance to her ex-husbands new-found love. Meanwhile, Pratt is in true comedic form as Paul, the quirky coworker of Theodore, who is the exact opposite of Catherine as he takes the news that Theodore is dating an operating system without the slightest blink of an eye. The entire cast comes together perfectly, and such a small group seems to be where Jonze does his best work as a director. He handled a very small cast wonderfully in Where the Wild Things Are and does it again, here.
Of course, Samantha and Theodore inevitably hit the pitfalls that all relationships do, with distance and doubt; fights and jaded comments; and for longer than a few moments, the viewer almost forgets entirely that Samantha isn’t human. At least she isn’t human in the physical sense of the word. It’s in these moments that Her begins to really explore what love is. Can we form a meaningful romantic connection with someone without the physical aspect of life? The relationship in Her is actually similar to a long-distance one that many people partake in every day. People meet online, hundreds if not thousands of miles apart, but they connect to each other nonetheless, and form a true connection, even if people in their lives don’t entirely understand it. A bond is formed between these two that extends beyond simply physical.
Everything about Her culminates in what I consider the truest sense of the word Masterpiece. It had me contemplating how I approach love in my own life, how I deal with loss, and what I learn from the toughest moments I face along the way. As heartwarming as it is heartbreaking, Her is a film I cannot recommend enough to you.
Thoughts From the Free For All Crew:
Her was, in a single word, profound. It takes you on an expertly crafted journey, one in which you will feel some of the lowest lows and some of the highest highs. Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams give near flawless performances from start to finish, but Scarlett Johansson is the true star here. With nothing but the power of her voice, she conveys a level of emotion most actors can only dream of matching, even using every means at their disposal. The combination of an incredible screenplay, inspiring direction, and breath-taking acting allowed Her to speak to me on a level few films do. I wasn’t just happy I saw it, I was grateful.