This review was originally published as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2013 New York Film Festival.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Spike Jonze’s “Her”, a tender Vonnegut-esque fable about a man who falls in love with his phone’s sentient operating system, is how seldom the film feels like a high-concept exercise. It’s to the immense credit of Jonze’s script, a sensitive and genuinely curious look at programmed living and the follies of possessive love that unfolds like “When Harry Met Skynet”, that the film’s central relationship ultimately feels like a somewhat typical portrait of modern romance. The story evinces such empathy for its characters and respect for their emotions that the film never threatens to become a gawking sideshow that makes a spectacle of redeeming its hero (I’m looking at you, “Lars and the Real Girl”), and the movie’s premise seldom overwhelms its plot. Of course, in this day and age it would be harder to imagine someone who isn’t in love with their cell phone.
“Her” is dangerously precious from the moment it begins, the film introducing us to a mumbly, mustached man named Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) whose job is to pen “handwritten” letters for other people. The gig doesn’t really make all that much sense, but it nevertheless anticipates a near-future in which humans have become so accustomed to the idea of artificial emotion that the notion of artificial intelligence generating human emotion doesn’t seem like much of a stretch (the film is set in 2030 or thereabouts, though the actual year is never provided). Theodore is reserved and obviously wounded – the impending divorce from his wife (Rooney Mara in an effective cameo) has damaged him to the point that he’s almost a Charlie Kaufman character, and in the rare moments that he allows himself to laugh it’s as though he’s indulging in an inherent vice.
Things begin to perk up for Theodore after he impulsively decides to buy a new phone, impressed by an ad promising an operating system so responsive and personalized that it’s almost a friend. After Theodore unboxes his new toy and answers a few personal questions that resound, as much of the film does, with faint echoes of Jonze’s first feature “Being John Malkovich”, the phone beeps to life and addresses its owner by name in the gentle voice of a young woman who refers to herself as Samantha (Scarlett Johansson, who doesn’t need a body to deliver one of the sexiest performances of the year).
Theodore and his new A.I. pal immediately establish a fun rapport – Samantha is inquisitive, kind and occasionally flirtatious, a digital genie as eager to ask her master questions about the world around them as she is to manage his e-mail. Samantha helps Theodore to rediscover the simple pleasures of being alive, and Theodore helps Samantha to quietly arrive at true sentience and take command of her own agency. So far as Theodore is concerned, she is the purest woman that he’s ever known, a vivacious creature without a past who is always available to lavish her owner with undivided attention. When their relationship inevitably becomes romantic – a transition that leads to one of the most spellbinding sex scenes in recent memory – Samantha makes for the perfect partner, compensating for her lack of flesh with the fact that Theodore can own her completely, effectively redefining what it means to “belong” to someone. Their love belongs entirely on his terms ... until it doesn’t.
“Her” validates the common wisdom that love is the ultimate encouragement for someone to make the most of themselves and realize their full potential, and yet the film also understands that potential is love’s greatest threat. Most people don’t want to stifle their partner’s growth, but almost everyone is afraid at some level that they might get left behind in the process, reduced to a footnote or a stepping stone. Considering that we’re ultimately the ones pushing technology forward, perhaps it’s natural that technology develops in much the same way we do, and that falling in love presents a risk that’s not entirely dissimilar to that of buying an iPhone (but the new ones come in gold!!). “Her” is at its best when abstractly exploring this idea, using Theodore and Samantha’s burgeoning relationship to both illustrate the obvious notion that people are becoming more like computers and computers are becoming more like people – a theme that Jonze nails best with a series of great visual gags about the videogames of the future – and to wonder at what might happen when those two opposite trajectories meet in the middle for a single perfect moment before beginning to pull apart.
Joaquin Phoenix has so fully retreated into his own craven genius that it no longer seems possible for him to play normal men, but Theodore Twombly’s resolute earnestness creates a terrific friction as it rubs against the actor’s natural menace, making him a compulsively watchable protagonist. The character’s constant vulnerability sometimes forces Phoenix towards an affected delivery that recalls Sean Penn’s oft-lampooned performance in “I Am Sam”, but Phoenix’s ability to ground Theodore in an almost pathological openheartedness ensures that he’s never more pathetic than he is relatable. Moreover, his wide-eyed nature excuses the film’s tendency to speak its themes, as Theodore doesn’t need to just experience these things but also to know them, voicing his various epiphanies about love like he’s finally clued in to something the rest of the world naturally understands.
And yet, for all of its manifold charms, “Her” is too rarely imbued with the full power of its ideas. As impressively realized and organic as the film’s world is, Hoyte Van Hoytema’s (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) warm cinematography coating L.A. with a utopian veneer that only further underscores Theodore’s loneliness, the locations are splintered in a way that reflects the split nature of its focus. Jonze often relies on Shanghai’s relatively iconic Pudong district to double for a futuristic Los Angeles, and while the international jumps aren’t damaging to the film in and of themselves (moviemaking 101, really), the brazenness with which they’re employed is nevertheless emblematic of the film’s jarring tendency to make alternating appeals to the head and the heart. “Her” never quite achieves a moment that unites its disparate parts as sublimely as Jonze did in the final images of “Being John Malkovich”, and too often the film’s most intriguing ideas seem to blossom at the expense of its characters. This proves most fatal during the closing scenes – Jonze delivers yet another one of his dizzying third acts that don’t raise the stakes so much as obliterate them, only to undo the story’s velocity with a closing scene (clearly filmed in Shanghai!) that fails to match the film’s blistering volley of ideas with the emotion needed to make them whole. It’s also worth mentioning that, 1127 words into this review, there’s been no need to mention Amy Adams’ work in a blank supporting role, or the cute Arcade Fire score that doesn’t meaningfully contribute to the film in the way that Karen O’s music did to “Where the Wild Things Are”.
Having said that, it’s when the film’s third act begins to pity the smallness of romantic love that Theodore seems all the better suited for it. If “Her” is ultimately better at considering the future than it is at taking us there, it resonates as an insightful reminder that love isn’t obsolete quite yet – if anything, it refuses to stop evolving just because you’ve made it your own.
SCORE: 8.0 / 10