I have seen three out of four of writer/director Spike Jonze’s feature films. The first one I saw was his 2009 adaptation of “Where The Wild Things Are,” the story of a boy facing loneliness in reality and his own fantasy. The second film was 1999’s “Being John Malkovich,” where three different people use one man as an escape from their lonely, mundane lives. Jonze seems to find great human stories in lonely, lost souls searching for something to hold on to. Jonze now wants to show us how technology will become a new vice for the alienated people of the future. His latest feature, “Her,” is both head-scratching science-fiction, an erotic fantasy for romantics (male and female) and a heartbreaking love story of how tightly people hold on to the ones they fall in love with, and how easily it can slip through their grip.
“Her” takes place in the not-to-distance future of Los Angeles, California (while some shots were filmed in Shanghai, and it shows). Theodore Twombly (Oscar nominee Joaquin Phoenix), in the middle of a divorce but struggling to sign the papers, writes romantic love/thank you letters for other people to give to their wives and relatives. He’s a kind, bashful and quiet man looking for organization in his life. He buys an operating system, with ads quietly mimicking the Apple products of today, for his computer that he wants to have a female voice. His system names itself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) and, with every conversation between her and Theodore, builds a unique but sexy personality that brings Theodore’s spirits up. They talk about life, human intimacy, love and everything in-between. Samantha is fascinated with Theodore’s life as a human, while Theodore is enamored with Samantha’s wondrous view of the world. Some people, like Theodore’s college buddy (Oscar nominee Amy Adams) and work colleague (Chris Pratt), find Theodore’s relationship with Samantha interesting. Others, like Theodore’s ex-wife Catherine (Oscar nominee Rooney Mara), are baffled by the idea of a man loving his computer (and vice versa).
A plot like this could’ve been a cheesy ploy for someone like Sheldon on “The Big Bang Theory,” (or, in proper hands, Abed on “Community”). What makes “Her” both romantic and heartbreaking is that Jonze reminds his actors to take this seriously. No one is outraged or laughing at Theodore and Samantha and, more importantly, they both have conversations that a normal couple has. They have an adorable honeymoon phase, test the limits of their relationship and question what they want together. The chemistry and conversations between Theodore and Samantha seem so natural and real, I wondered if Phoenix and Johansson ever flirted with each other before shooting.
Everything in this movie is beautiful. Phoenix, known for his intensity in “The Master” and “Walk the Line,” is so emotionally naked and bare that even when he turns down a night of passion with Olivia Wilde, you still feel sorry for the guy. He has commitment issues, no doubt, but it’s because he wants love and only love. Phoenix is great in restraint, especially when the joy of Samantha lights up his face and the hurt of his divorce chips at his heart. Johansson is revelatory as a Samantha, who comes off as some kind of alien exploring the wonders of life and sex. Her voice is like the raspy sex symbol she is in real life, but her words (and delivery of those words) sound like a precocious teenager in her first real relationship. It seems so simple, yet comes off so original in a film industry that defines “romance” as either cute, quirky overkill or by-the-book bland. Adams, Mara and Pratt all provide great support, but the acting prizes go to Phoenix and Johansson for their radiant chemistry and intimacy. Jonze and his art department deserve nods for keeping the “not to distant future” very fathomable. There are no flying cars, space travel, or hover boards, but simply muted color coordinated clothing and more advanced holograms. The haunting, sweeping electronic score by Will Collins helps make the film seem as light and bright as the cinematography, and contributions by Arcade Fire, Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Jonze himself don’t hurt.
“Her” is indeed a beautiful love story, but it almost seems like a trick on viewers. Viewers can either see how sad it is that man has so much love to give and chooses to give it to his computer, or be shocked at how human technology is becoming. For me, all I saw was the story of a lonely man looking for something to pour his heart out to, whether that is woman or machine. Jonze is very “out there” compared to most writers and directors, but his imagination on screen is something better than fiction.
Final Verdict: 4 out of 4 stars