With Her, director Spike Jonze offers one of the strongest and most prescient films of his career. Using a delicate sense of humor and compassion, his fourth feature film ingeniously explores emotional territories perverted by the filter of technology to get to rather melancholy but profound truth. The film follows Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), a recently separated man in a not too-distant but unspecified future who upgrades his operating system on his computer, which takes care of his calendar and runs his home by peeking into his emails and files on his hard drive or cloud. The OS happens to be gifted with the sound of a pleasant, smoky-voiced woman (Scarlett Johansson), who calls herself Samantha. As they get to know each other, the flesh and blood man and the disembodied voice grow closer. Could this intimacy really be love or some deranged level of madness symptomatic of humanity’s ever-growing reliance on computers?
It sounds eerie, but Jonze dives into the question with such a sensitive touch, the film never feels anything less than heartfelt. He never condescends to his characters— be they human or A.I.— or present them as anything less than beings yearning for a little intimate connection. Reminiscent to the delicate touch he used on his previous, criminally underrated, feature, Where the Wild Things Are, Jonze takes you by the hand and asks you to come along on this cinematic journey with as much tender attention he pays to the magic between the film’s two main characters’ blossoming connection.
The script by Jonze (a winner in last year’s Florida Film Critics Circle competition) offers loose-limbed, natural dialogue that focuses on feelings and affection instead of exposition. It doesn’t matter how far in the future the film takes place or how computing has evolved to this point. Jonze focuses on emotional connection, using the setting and circumstances to stay zeroed in on the transference between characters.
It helps that Jonze has some brilliant actors to work with. Phoenix elevates mild-mannered to elaborate heights of endearment. He never seems creepy or pathetic. You never pity him as he begins to fall for Samantha. She’s chipper and eager to please. Her choice of language is casual but warm in a sense that she cares about her tasks. His reactions to her statements are loaded with bemusement and surprise that double for both the blossoming odd relationship but also a curiosity about the mystery behind the silky voice whispering in his ear via a wireless earpiece.
As the film carries on, there are misunderstandings and attempts at growing intimacy that reveals their relationship as something complex, with varied degrees of longing between both of them, as if they are locked on an emotional see-saw. Many movie directors have clumsily tripped over themselves to present idealized notions of regular people falling in love, and the product is usually superficial. However, Jonze explores so many of the subtle nuances of these little connections, often only using deceptively simple dialogue, he keeps Her from devolving into some gimmick. The director never allows this seeming contrivance to get in the way of his experiment, which is as much about examining the growing bond between two people who were once strangers as it is about some of the deepest connections that defy flesh and blood and come from within the individual.
The film unfolds sometime in an unspecified future. Theodore has a job at a company called BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com reciting letters for lovers, which are printed out in handwriting. This could be a funny joke if it did not feel so timely. It shows how disconnected humanity has become from its own experience of loving by presenting a world where love has been outsourced to a business. Human disconnectedness is everywhere in Her. In the background, most of the populace wander alone, looking out at the space before them with a distance in their eyes, seemingly talking to themselves, connected to another existence by a single, cordless earpiece. Though the film never specifies an era, it’s not far from what we are currently experiencing in public spaces with smart phones.
Jonze considers it all. Why do people seem to settle on unflattering high-waisted pants? Women scarcely wear makeup and bed head seems to be the “in” hairstyle among both genders. Arcade Fire’s spare soundtrack even reflects this sense of lack. The music features sighing organs, building toward a climax that never seems to arrive.
On a superficial level, Jonze establishes a beautiful world that seems a mix between Ikea rooms and children’s indoor playgrounds. An elevator features the shifting pattern of tree branches projected on the walls, as it climbs upward. The cubicles in Theodore’s office feature translucent walls in primary colors. It’s a comment on a state of further arrested development adults seem to go through in this future, as escaping more complex and ever-mysterious human relations seems to have become easier for this state of humanity. Theodore half-jokingly confesses to his friends that his evening conundrum is choosing between Internet porn and video games.
Of course these characters are aware of the special and difficult elements of falling in love, or at least the humans with “non-artificial intelligence,” as Samantha calls them, have such awareness. As Theodore’s friend Amy (Amy Adams) says, “Falling in love is like some socially acceptable form of insanity.” To Samantha, it’s a new experience, and she offers Theodore a playful, fresh innocence devoid of true consequences. Meanwhile, Theodore’s ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) is especially disgusted when Theodore confesses he is “dating” his computer. “You always wanted to have a wife without the challenges of dealing with anything real,” she tells him upon hearing this revelation. That she and Theodore have baggage may be a burden, but it’s a reality in a world looking for more and more ways to escape reality. However, his workmates do not seem too upset, as it seems this phenomena of having a relationship with an OS is not uncommon in this world, and they go out on double dates together, getting to know Samantha just like any new girl to their world of friendship.
It’s a miracle that Jonze does not turn the movie into a freak show. Instead, he has brewed up a rather enthralling essay on loneliness and the role desire plays in the search for another being to fill that ever-present “empty” that informs desire. However, Jonze takes it to a higher level more akin to the notion of Lacan’s llamela, that, in simple terms, demonstrates how we all project ourselves in everything we desire, but those things or persons, ironically, can never truly complete us. It is especially associated with the libido and intimate relationships with others. It’s amazing how many examples of this appear in Her.
When Theodore goes on a blind date with a woman (Olivia Wilde), the two constantly seem to project on the other in a game of getting-to-know-you that reveals nothing about the other person (the credits fittingly name Wilde’s character as “blind date”). When they get buzzed on alcohol, she calls him a puppy dog and he calls her a tiger, but then he switches his animal to a dragon that could tear up a tiger… but won’t. It’s all rather clumsy and awkward, and when it comes to a decision to move somewhere beyond their self-involved banter, there’s little elsewhere for this man and woman to go— alone together.
The disconnection is both a frightening symptom of the escapist possibilities around them and also something that speaks to a rather innate characteristic that is the flawed human being, something unattainable by the artificial intelligence of Samantha. As she works on intuition, she feeds off Theodore’s information, which sometimes includes lies he tells himself, but can also come from the tone of his voice. We don’t know, and it does not matter. In the end, there is no other. It’s just a disembodied sense of self. It’s all there in the poster, Theodore’s mustachioed face and the lowercase word “her” underneath it.
Her runs 126 minutes and is rated R (language and brief moments of nudity). It opens pretty much everywhere in the U.S. today, Jan. 10. Warner Bros. Pictures sent me an awards screener for consideration in this contest.
(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)