They say all good science fiction is actually about today. In Spike Jonze’s latest wonderful feature, ‘Her’, that feels particularly true.
The story feels not merely set 15 minutes in the future, but just one Apple press conference away from reality. The world is one in which the entire population of a rustling city wanders disconnected, focused on the hypnotic screens of their pocket-sized computers. You know, just like now. The only hitch is that a new invention has been released in the form of a sentient operating system for those computers – one that can think, behave, evolve and interact as well as, if not better than, the socially-challenged population. There are a number of ways that a filmmaker could expand upon that concept, but in the hands the endlessly quirky and emotionally vulnerable Jonze, this one evolves into a love story. ‘Her’ is a tale as old as time and as current as the latest software update. It’s an equally hilarious, touching and creepy little parable. In other words, it’s the latest Spike Jonze movie.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as a hopeless romantic and lonely soul whose awkward mustache is matched only by his even more awkwardly hiked-up pants. His character Theodore is a hipster icon in the making, though thankfully not as irritating as that honor suggests. He writes personalized letters for a living that are filled with the emotion, romance and warmth he seems incapable of experiencing in his daily life (especially in his recently terminated long-term relationship with Rooney Mara, with whom divorce is but a delayed signature away). Then he buys a sentient operating system with the sultry tones of Scarlett Johannson, and she immediately cleans up his hard drive, flirts a smile on his face, sets him up on a date, and – when that doesn’t work – goes ahead and has digital aural sex with him.
Soon, Theodore and his computer are in love. As she grows and evolves as software, their connection only deepens. You’d think the world at large would consider their relationship odd, but Theodore’s equally disconnected friends embrace it immediately. Chris Pratt and his human girlfriend take them on double dates, while Amy Adams’ scruffy and freshly heartbroken videogame designer thinks it’s a wonderful life decision and points out that he’s hardly the only one who fell for his new computer. The only character appropriately frustrated by the relationship is Mara’s, who provides a welcome sense of human skepticism to the digitally distanced story. Throughout it all, Jonze’s impeccable cinematic eye ensures that the strange tale is moving, funny and just disturbing enough for the inevitable tragic consequences of such a fitful romance to slither into the proceedings.
Working without a heady keyboard collaborator like Charlie Kaufman or Dave Eggers for the first time, Jonze proves to be a surprisingly capable screenwriter. His script taps directly into contemporary themes of digital disconnection and online dating with satirical precision and understanding warmth. The film gently mocks current conditions without ever feeling superior to the subject, while presenting the central relationship with an emotional honesty few others could have mustered.
As his career stretches on, it’s clear that the core strength of Jonze’s filmmaking is not his skill with striking visuals or his quirky comedy, but his intense emotional vulnerability. (That’s what turned ‘Being John Malkovich‘ into more than just a clever surreal joke, and made the underrated ‘Where the Wild Things Are‘ such a tough sell to the kiddies.) Never has that been more apparent than in ‘Her’. The film is giddily romantic to a fault for much of the running time (it has at least two too many solo dating montages), before becoming heartbreakingly real. Jonze taps into all of the joy of new romance and its inevitable split with palpable emotional intensity. Like all great love stories, this one is doomed to fail, and Jonze delivers on that promise with a gut-wrenching finale that is both emotionally fulfilling and thematically satisfying. It explores both the tragic inevitability of one partner outgrowing another and the ways in which virtual connections are but a pale replication of the real thing.
Jonze couldn’t have done it without a cast as good as this, from Phoenix at his most heartbreakingly vulnerable to Adams at her most restrained/quirky. The disembodied voice of gossip mag sexpot Johannson manages to fulfill a million fantasies without any visual stimulation.
Yet, in the end, ‘Her’ is a screenwriter and director’s movie, not an actor’s showcase. The film succeeds on the strength of the central idea and the skill with which it’s fleshed out. Jonze does an extraordinary job of building his near-future fantasy (the seamless combination of L.A. and Shanghai is a gloriously impersonal paradise) and teasing out his ideas through goofy humor and grounded drama. If there’s a fault, it’s that the movie is more emotionally than intellectually satisfying. This type of think-piece sci-fi needs a bitter Rod Serling-style ending to hammer its parable home, but Jonze is too in love with his protagonist and world to deliver that. Instead of being the ultimate critique of love in the digital age, Jonze’s film is ultimately about the difficulty of connecting, growing, and letting go. So, the closest thing to a flaw in the film probably makes it more universally appealing and less easily dated.
I guess that means ‘Her’ is a pretty great movie – one perfect to see in a theater or stream on your device of choice while avoiding contact with the person next to you.