Dir. Spike Jonze (Adaptation., Being John Malkovich, Where the Wild Things Are)
Screenplay by Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Chris Pratt and Olivia Wilde
Spike Jonze’s first feature length film since 2009’s Where the Wild Things Are is Her, set in a futuristic but wholly realistic and recognizable world in which moustachioed men wear high-waisted pants and bright pastels, operating systems are advanced enough to understand even whispered commands, and handwritten letters are done on the computer, too, by BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com. It’s where Her‘s main character, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix, great as usual), works. Not since Up‘s opening scene did a film establish a character’s life and quirks in its first 10 minutes quite like Her does.
Theodore gets requests for birthday and anniversary notes and writes sweet letters to strangers’ relatives and loved ones. His coworkers love his letters, but outside of work, Theodore isn’t such a star and he doesn’t seem as agile with his own feelings as he is when writing about others’. He’s going through a divorce from Catherine (Rooney Mara), a writer, and jokes to his friend Amy (Amy Adams) that he “can’t prioritize between video games and Internet porn.” To get organized, he buys a new operating system that should help him with email and scheduling. “It’s not just an operating system,” the ads claim. “It’s a consciousness.” And indeed it is: as it’s setting up, the computer asks Theodore questions – like what his relationship with his mother is like – to fine tune the OS’s personality to his needs. He ends up with an OS named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), the name she loved most after reading a book on baby names in two one-hundredths of a second.
The two are charmed with each other, for sure. Theodore even feels uneasy about Samantha reading his emails to him when they involve other women. He’s embarrassed when he is set up on a date by a friend and Samantha shows him photos of the woman (Olivia Wilde) he would be going out with. Samantha evolves, though, and quickly. She starts feeling things and thinking and wanting and yearning. “Are these feelings real,” she wonders, “or are they just programming?” She fantasizes about having a body and what it would feel like to go on walks with Theodore.
I’ve read pieces on Her that see the film as a cautionary tale of our dependence on technology, but I think those miss the point a little bit. Theodore and Samantha don’t look to fall in love with each other. They fall for each other because they’re both just looking for someone who’ll listen to them. They’re looking for companionship. That Samantha doesn’t have a body doesn’t matter to Theodore; that’s made clear when Samantha hires a woman to be her physical surrogate. It’s too weird, Theodore says. (Theodore’s always fallen for women for their minds first. He and Catherine helped each other grow professionally and they read each other’s work.) It’s one of the most affecting scenes in Her and it’s a lot more profound than I am making it sound.
Her is well acted, beautifully shot with some very impressive production and set design. Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson’s voice work are outstanding, as are the performances from Her‘s supporting cast which includes Amy Adams, Olivia Wilde and Chris Pratt. Much of what makes Her exceptional, though, is thanks to writer-director Spike Jonze, whose vision and screenplay created a world that is recognizable, realistic and relatable. Like Jonze’s previous films, Her begs to be rewatched; there are subtleties in the writing and sets of Jonze’s films that I am sure I missed in my first viewing. I still learn new things about Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. when I watch them again, though those were directed by Jonze but written by Charlie Kaufman.
Had Her been released wide in 2013, it definitely would have made my top-10 list for the year. Instead, Montrealers had to wait until Jan. 10, 2014 for Her to hit theatres. August: Osage County, war film Lone Survivor, La Grande Bellezza and Le Passé are all 2013 films that are only opening in Montreal in January 2014. It’s unfortunate, but it happens.
Her surprises; it’s quirky and deep, funny and sad. It’s thought-provoking and very sweet, too.
Her is playing in theatres across Montreal.