It used to be that when lonely singles announced that they had found love online, they were viewed with skepticism and suspicion -- after all, why couldn’t a healthy, socially adjusted individual find true love the “old-fashioned way,” like we did before there were sites like Match.com? Meanwhile, as the success of such services gradually took the...read more
It used to be that when lonely singles announced that they had found love online, they were viewed with skepticism and suspicion -- after all, why couldn’t a healthy, socially adjusted individual find true love the “old-fashioned way,” like we did before there were sites like Match.com? Meanwhile, as the success of such services gradually took the stigma out of online romance, social-networking sites like Facebook began to alter not just the way we find love in the 21st century, but the fundamental ways in which we interact with our friends, family, and colleagues. In his stylish, vividly realized movie Her, Oscar-nominated director Spike Jonze imagines a not-too-distant future in which these seismic shifts lead to love between man and machine. Likewise, by working within the framework of a romantic drama, Jonze creates an emotionally honest film that feels endearingly familiar, yet enticingly unique.
Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) has built his career on expressing the emotions that others cannot. His job is to pen heartfelt, deeply personal letters to complete strangers based on details provided by the clients of the company he works for, and he has a knack for finding just the right words for every occasion. Meanwhile, reluctant to sign the papers that will finalize his divorce to his childhood sweetheart, depressed Theodore has slowly withdrawn from his supportive social circle, which includes his longtime friend Amy (Amy Adams), herself floundering in a failed marriage. When Theodore purchases a state-of-the-art computer operating system with the ability to learn and grow with the user, he sits down at his desk and prepares to get his life in order. Adopting the name Samantha, the perceptive software (voice of Scarlett Johansson) slowly begins to bring him out of his shell by joining him everywhere he goes and encouraging him to resume dating. Their relationship quickly turns intimate, with Theodore teaching Samantha what it means to feel human and Samantha giving him the courage to walk away from his failed marriage. Things get complicated, however, when Samantha's rapidly evolving knowledge base starts to alter the very core of their connection.
Having gotten his start in music videos, Jonze has always possessed a unique visual sense. In Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, his assured control of mise-en-scene seemed in lockstep with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s unconventional approach to plot and characterization. Likewise, as a director who also acts, he has displayed from his first feature an uncanny ability to draw out substantive performances that still revel in quirk. Her is the first film directed by Jonze in which he also gets the sole screenwriting credit, and the strength of the script marks a substantial turning point in his career. As a writer, Jonze displays an astute understanding of the ways relationships change and grow. He uses that awareness to fashion an engaging story of loneliness and vulnerability, as well as to explore the nature of growth in both developing and decaying relationships. This is apparent in the scene in which a reflective Theodore belatedly recognizes that his inability to emotionally invest in his marriage helped cause its ultimate failure, as well as in Jonze’s mapping of the trajectory of Theodore’s relationship with Samantha as her consciousness begins to expand at a rate that surprises even her.
At this point in Jonze’s career, it would have been easy for him to simply concentrate on deepening his directorial skills. But in his musings here about the ephemeral nature of love and the way it can lead us to do things that may raise the eyebrows of even our closest confidants, he uses his acute skills of perception to craft a story that everyone can relate to, even if the central plot device (a man falling in love with computer software) seems laughably absurd. Of course, this wouldn’t be the first time Jonze has managed to coax emotional resonance out of an outlandish concept, but given that this instance also marks a new step in his career as a writer, it does, in a way, justify his achievements as a cinematic storyteller while simultaneously showing great promise for the future.
And what a future that would be, should technology pan out as Her predicts. The most effective science fiction presents a world that’s just familiar enough for us to place ourselves into it as viewers, but just advanced enough -- technologically or socially -- to spur our imaginations. With Theodore’s ever present mobile phone/computer, Jonze forces us to recognize that our love affair with gadgets is more than just a way to pass the time, and thanks to Johansson, Samantha isn’t just a mere computer program. Like a human infant, she’s a sponge soaking in every bit of information possible.
What makes her a truly fascinating character, however, is the fact that she is completely conscious and able to communicate her sense of wonder at the discovery that she is becoming something more than what she was programmed to be. Johansson’s wide-apertured performance as Samantha contrasts against Phoenix’s mournful Theodore beautifully, and the delicate ways that Jonze reveals precisely how and what the two characters are learning from one another raises some fascinating questions about human nature -- not just in relation to other men and women, but external factors as well. Even late in the film, when a clever twist on the standard formula hints that Her may be an unintentional prequel to The Terminator, both actors commit to their roles in a way that keeps the focus on the characters, rather than the intentionally vague device that drives the story. So even while this emotionally perceptive romance hits some familiar notes, Jonze plays them with the skill of an instrumentalist who doesn’t rely solely on the sheet music, but feels every note somewhere deep in his soul.
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