Writer/Director: Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt, Olivia Wilde
Is it possible to fall madly in love with someone even though you have never met them? I am sure that is not uncommon in the world of online dating. What if that person was your operating system? That is the fascinating and peculiar idea behind Spike Jonze’s latest, Her. Theodore Twombley (Phoenix) is going through the divorce process with his wife Catherine (Mara). He feels alone, confused, and all of those other feelings that come when the love of your life wants to leave you. It probably does not help matters that he writes love letters for other people as a living through his job at “Beautifulhandwrittenletters.com”.
A new, personal, talking operating system has been released on the market, and Theo purchases the new OS1. This new operating system is specifically catered and customized to grow and evolve around the person using it. Theodore gives his new OS1 a female identity who gives herself the name Samantha (Johansson). He is baffled at how intelligent and lifelike Samantha is. She has the capabilities of reading his email, browsing his computer, looking at his music and really knowing everything about him through what is found on his computer or cloud. The more Theodore uses and talks to Samantha, she goes from being a friend and organizer to someone who can sense his emotions and vulnerability. Their relationship continues to grow and when intimacy is experimented with, Theo realizes she is more special than anyone he has ever been with and starts referring to her as his girlfriend. He knows this is a strange and different kind of relationship and keeps Samantha a secret from his boss (Pratt) and good friend Amy (Adams).
Spike Jonze is the creative genius behind the likes of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. His movies are original, different, and may be a bit odd at times. Her is all of that. It is by far one of the most original ideas and concepts I have seen all year. The story takes place in the future but Jonze never states what year it is. The design aesthetic is colorful and vibrant. The city and downtown landscape is a booming metropolis. You may notice that the clothing and costume design slightly contradicts that. Jonze and costume designer Casey Storm have decided to go vintage with high-waist pants and mustaches as the look which I see as them saying that this look has come back to fashion in this timeframe. Technology has soared to new innovative heights. I am sure it is only a matter of time before some of these technological advances start happening. The film provides an insightful commentary on the state of technology, how we come to use it, how it can control our lives, the obsession we have with our devices, online dating, and intrigues us with that concept of an individual falling in love with something so advanced it is practically human. Jonze, along with Phoenix and Johansson, present the romance with such a subtle and evolving growth and is treated like any other romance between two humans. Maybe I was too sucked into it, but there are times where you forget that Samantha is not a real person. When you succumb to the possibility of this being a real relationship, you forget that she is an operating system. You think of her as a voice on the other end of a phone or perhaps two people in a long distance relationship.
We last saw Joaquin Phoenix in a fully charged and highly physical role in 2012’s The Master which also starred Amy Adams. His performance here is far different yet equally impressive and demanding as that one. Theodore is a shy, introverted, and lonely individual. He builds this beautiful relationship all without ever filming any scenes with Johansson. Many of his scenes are him alone interacting with his device. There is an innocence and vulnerability to Phoenix that we don’t often see him portray. Johansson continues her string of really fantastic work within the past few years. Like I have mentioned before, I was a bit late on the ScarJo train, but I am fully on board now. Johansson treats Samantha as if she were a full-bodied character. She is breathtaking and sublime as she morphs from a simple voice of an operating system into this almost girl-next-door type of character. She never uses a cheap robotic techy type of voice. Their chemistry together is so warm and caring that you forget it is about a man falling in love with an operating system. I also find it interesting that Phoenix filmed all of his scenes with another actress cast as Samantha. I do not know how it was originally filmed, if the original actress’ voice was played back for Phoenix to act against or if he was acting without any sort of playback. Johansson took over in the part in post-production after Phoenix shot all of his scenes. Amy Adams and Rooney Mara should not be ignored. It should come as no surprise that they both give strong performances in smaller roles, especially since much of Mara’s work is in flashback montages.
Her is one of those instances where I, as a writer, cannot do justice in describing what the film is like and the journey it gives to its audience. It is best to experience it for yourself and obviously bring an open mind. If I had seen this in 2013 it would have made my Top 10 of 2013 list. Jonze has made another provocative film to add to his innovative repertoire.
RATING: **** 1/2 (4.5 out of 5 stars)