Spike Jonze has created an almost perfect film. I have not felt the joy of cinema as greatly as I felt with this movie in a long time, probably since I found out about Orson Welles. Her is funny, sexy, tender, beautiful, and sad.
I was a massive fan of the boiling creativity that enveloped Jonze’s first two feature films, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. But after the snooze-fest that was Where The Wild Things Are, I wrote off Spike Jonze to a degree, assuming the brilliance of those films was all Charlie Kaufman (screenwriter of Malkovich and Adaptation). Boy, was I wrong.
The assured world-building that Jonze displays here would impress the finest science fiction writers. As any amateur sci-fi writer knows, it’s the details that matter, and Her absolutely nails them, down to the slightly futuristic costumes, showcasing oversized knits and high-waisted pants. He deftly creates a near-future that is not dystopian, but rather realistic and quite nice. Sure, the L.A. smog is still a problem, but the subway goes everywhere. Theodore takes it not only to work and back, but straight to the beach, or to the mountains. As they commute, Theo and the other inhabitants of Her’s world speak aloud to their devices, the disembodied voices catching them up on celebrity gossip, helping them check and respond to emails. No one looks crazy when everyone is talking to themselves.
When Theo upgrades to the latest cutting-edge operating system, he finds a seemingly advanced personality in the machine. The voice (she names herself Samantha) is curious about Theo and the world, and is a quick learner, picking up on Theo’s cues immediately. Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) is funny, and fun, and lives only to serve Theo, as he is the only person she has ever known. She relies on him to get by in her new job as his virtual assistant, and he, in turn, starts to depend on her too.
Two rhetorical questions: How good is Joaquin Phoenix? Has there ever been a better back-to-back string of performances as good as his in 2012’s The Master, and now Her? (And don’t say Tom Hanks.) Unlike many anointed “great” actors of his generation (Daniel Day-Lewis, Sean Penn, Johnny Depp, the aforementioned Hanks), Phoenix doesn’t depend on costumes, accents, or mental disability to create his character. We get immediate access to what feels like a very real, very raw place inside his characters. Freddie Quell, Phoenix’s character in The Master was an unpredictable, violent mess of a man. Pretty much the last person I would want to be stuck in a room with (especially if there was a jar of 180 proof moonshine lying around).
When we meet Theodore Twombley, Phoenix’s Dickensianly-monikered character in Her, he is not the kind of person who stumbles into confrontations. Rather, he retracts and retires to his own mind, to the earpiece stuck in his ear, while the voice there reads him his spam emails or sets him up with anonymous phone sex when he cannot sleep. There is something beautiful there in Theodore’s mind, though. In his dayjob, he pens charming and beautiful letters, for people to give to their own lovers, parents, friends. His only friends seem to be Amy and Charles, a seemingly mismatched couple that lives in his building (Amy Adams & Matt Letscher).
From the very first frame, we are brought right on board with Theodore and his plight. Jonze and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Let the Right One In, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) use a tight shot of Theodore’s face as he pens one of his lovely letters at work. We (the audience) are immediately on the inside with this fragile, funny, eccentric man, even while he retreats from his loved ones in the film’s world, and avoids discussing divorce with his separated wife Catherine (played by an unrecognizable-to-me Rooney Mara). We want for Theodore to go out there and be discovered. We want others to love him like we already do.
But when we meet Samantha, we immediately fall for her too, and we can understand that this human-OS romantic relationship may be not such a bad idea. In a way though, Theo creates her, answering her questions about the world, sharing his tastes and tuning hers to match. It is due to Theo’s generosity of spirit that Samantha becomes an artist, a composer, Theodore’s best possible companion.
Theo possesses a boundless inner creativity, but seems to be content just making a buck out of it, spending his nights playing video games. Amy, on the other hand, makes video games at work, and tries to tap a creative well when she gets home, taking film for documentaries that don’t go anywhere. She is one of those people who still talks about the project they have stopped working on, afraid to admit it is dead. We get the feeling that she takes no joy from the endeavor, and we suspect she is faking a creative side merely to please Charles. In many ways, this is a film about honesty, and about coming to terms with who we are and what we want from this life.
I won’t tell you how the movie ends, but it will be remembered as one of those perfect Hollywood endings they write about in the textbooks – surprising, but inevitable. You can tell the filmmakers loved these characters. Their love pours off the screen and onto the audience. The thought warmed me on my walk to the subway in the New York cold, as the people around me stared down at their devices, the dull glow illuminating their entranced faces.
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