Her, Spike Jonze’s fourth film as director and first as sole screenwriter, has been lofted on the shoulders of many for its purportedly bracing portrayal of man falling for machine. In the film, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) works for beautifulhandwrittenletters.com, where he spends his days composing heartfelt notes between strangers he has come to intimately know. He is recovering from a divorce with Catherine (Rooney Mara), and sits around eating take-out while playing computer games. His friend Amy (Amy Adams), who lives in his building, eggs him on to start dating, setting him up with a nameless blind date (Olivia Wilde).
But it’s his developing relationship with Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) that takes central position in this near-futuristic twist on the romantic comedy. Johansson plays Samantha with a supernatural breathiness that throughout the film feels increasingly like a preposterous, projective put-on. The conceit of the operating system, OS1, is that it grows and evolves as it learns from its user and the world around it; it makes sense that Samantha would start the film sounding artificially facilitative, but by the end it betrays all development of the character. If we’re expected to believe that this woman has grown like a human consciousness, why does she still sound so faked?
Johansson has a powerful natural speaking voice—and at one point Theodore even criticises her exaggerated exhalation—but she continues to sound like a panting servant to his desires throughout. One can’t help but wonder how different the film might be if Jonze hadn’t recast the role after Samantha Morton proved to be, apparently, an ill-fitting choice.
Her nature seems to be exactly what Theodore needs; he tells her in their first conversation that everything feels disorganised, so she sets about fixing him. This is where the problematic elements start to creep in. It’s the old “woman fixes man and opens his eyes” trope we’re all so familiar with now. She’s designed to meet his every need, and gradually the scope of those needs expand, inviting concerning connotations with them.
Her’s problem is that what seems, at first, to be at least partially a satire of technological dependence, abandons any of the complex ideas raised by its first hour. It becomes so enamoured with its own basic premise—a love story between a man and an operating system—that it fails to interrogate any of the ideas raised by such a concept and gives over almost entirely to the sludgy romance that is consistently the blandest thing about it.
But Phoenix is excellent as Theodore, all pangs of heartbreak and sensitivity, which makes the script’s failures so much more prominent. Nearly every conversation between he and Samantha rolls around, sometimes exploring concepts vaguely related to her non-corporeal presence, until it reaches a point where one of them says something that offends the other. This generally leads to an exchange like: “Oh, ummm…” and then “No! Sorry,” and so on. It quickly becomes repetitive, a lazy means of kicking the tyres to keep the story’s motor running throughout its 126 minutes despite not having enough fuel to sustain it.
Jonze ensures that this is not a tale of a maligned relationship, with nearly every reaction to the news that Theodore is dating his operating system amounting to relative nonchalance. As a result, nothing particularly differentiates this human-OS relationship from a human-human one; that is to say, their dates are stock fare and their more intimate moments are basically just phone sex (outside of one ill-advised attempt at sex surrogacy). It may as well just be a long distance relationship where we never see the person on the other end of the landline.
There is requisite tenderness in all of this. It’s only deep under the surface of Her where these significant problems lie. The female characters range from troubling to well-developed, with Olivia Wilde’s blind date forming only a written bundle of neuroses, to Amy, whose warmth is palpable courtesy of Adams’ affectionate performance.
More fascinating elements include the speed of Samantha’s evolution and the way Jonze uses this to undercut the central relationship, even though this element seems rather hurriedly and conveniently utilised. Ultimately, I just wished that Jonze were more willing to undercut his premise; some real sourness at the end would have been far more affecting than what eventually transpires, which is a little too pseudo-Lost in Translation and not in the good way that might imply.
Of course, Jonze evidently set out to make a film about the mending process after a relationship more than one which truly catechizes the technological malaise that surely awaits us in some form in the future. On this level it is successful, hitting the right emotional beats, aided by beautiful cinematography from Hoyte van Hoytema and a great score from Arcade Fire and Owen Pallett.
Ultimately, though, it’s disappointingly simplistic, particularly compared to Jonze’s impressive filmography thus far. It’s neither as brilliantly clever as Adaptation or Being John Malkovich, nor as bursting with beauty and feeling as Where the Wild Things Are. Her feels mostly like Jonze trying to scale his filmmaking down to a more personal approach, and while that still functions well, it’s at the mild expense of the intelligence he has become known for.
After watching Her, I kept thinking of the great Louie two-parter from its third season, “Daddy’s Girlfriend Pt. 1” and “Daddy’s Girlfriend Pt. 2”. In the second of these episodes, Louis C.K.’s loose analogue goes on a date with Liz, gloriously played by Parker Posey, who takes him on one of those now clichéd whirlwind dates. When this ends by ascending dozens of flights of stairs, Liz perches precariously on the edge of the building while Louis protests.
Liz tells him that the only reason he fears sitting there is because a small part of him wants to jump; she doesn’t, because she’s enjoying herself too much. In her fading smile following this statement is everything Her seeks to discuss: the decaying ease of human contact; persistent loneliness; the possibility of love and happiness; the vibrancy of a cityscape; and the siren call of the city middle far below.
There’s a scene in Her that at least somewhat mirrors this one visually, but seeks to be its gentle opposite. But where Louie focuses on the humanity of that scene, Her emphasises the smallness of it and the insulation of the futuristic Los Angeles where the film is set. It’s certainly not that Her is a bad film, it’s just a film that exists too much within a man with a voice in his ear. When it tries to go beyond that, it lacks emotional and intellectual clarity.
and a half
Laurence Barber – follow Laurence on Twitter at @bortlb.