Other people can be so much trouble, particularly those with whom we have intimate relationships. They can shatter the images we have of them. They sometimes leave unexpectedly — or we do. And then what? Conflicts vanish only to be replaced by a sense of vacancy, an emptiness that feels encompassing and hollow.
It’s that kind of loneliness that makes director Spike Jonze’s Her so strangely affecting, a movie set in a near future in which person-to-person communication has become increasingly difficult.
So it seems for Theodore Twombley (Joaquin Phoenix), a man who earns his living writing intimate letters for others. He composes these letters on his computer. He then prints out versions that look “authentically” hand-written and puts them in the mail.
R for language, sexual content and brief graphic nudity
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
Theodore’s like the ultimate greeting card. He expresses sentiments that elude those for whom he writes. He takes his work seriously. He’s good at it. His letters aren’t trite.
Theodore — let’s continue to call him by his first name — is an odd duck. He lives in Los Angeles and wears what seem to be the fashion of his times, pants worn high around the waist. He has a mustache, and resides in a sleek, sparsely furnished high-rise apartment where he plays holographic video games while city lights twinkle in the distance.
In early scenes, Theodore walks slowly. Each step seems a bit of an ordeal: Theodore’s body understands what his mind may not yet comprehend. No new destination beckons. He’s in the middle of getting divorced from his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), a woman he has known since he was a child.
Jonze gradually turns Her into love story in which a dispirited Theodore falls for a woman with whom he shares a new intimacy. Her name is Samantha.
Did I say that Theodore falls in love with a woman? I need to amend that. Samantha (voice by Scarlett Johansson) is a computer operating system, the personalized representation of something called “OS1,” which offers a breakthrough in artificial intelligence. Samantha is Siri on steroids, and she’s capable of developing an evolving personality.
Smart, unflappable, flirtatious and sexy, Samantha turns Her into a romance, but one that, by definition, can’t be fully consummated. In this case, the obvious problem probably needs stating: Theodore has a body: Samantha is pure, unrestricted consciousness.
At one point, Samantha tries to cope with the predicament by asking Theodore to have a sexual relationship with a willing surrogate (Portia Doubleday). Theodore can’t handle the strangeness such an encounter requires, a bizarre sort of threesome in which Doubleday’s character generously clears out her personality for Samantha.
It’s not that Theodore never tries to have relationships with other humans. At one point, he goes on a date with an enormously appealing young woman (Olivia Wilde). They have a great time over dinner, but before the evening’s over, Wilde’s suddenly wary character sabotages any hope for continued connection.
Theodore also has a friendly relationship with a neighbor in his building (Amy Adams in another impressive performance, this time as a woman who designs video games).
Jonze emphasizes the isolation that stems — at least in part — from our increasing interaction with user-friendly machines, but Her never plays like a Luddite’s diatribe against rapidly advancing technology.
Jonze offers us what seem like provisional realizations. A fundamental sense of consternation permeates everything: We no longer can be sure whether life is mostly defined by consciousness or flesh-and-blood physicality. And if machines develop consciousness do they represent a new species of being?
Her allows us to pose such questions for ourselves. The movie primarily works as a sweet, sad love story, as a deadpan look at where we might be headed and as a character study of a man living in a convenient but anonymous future.
Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and production designer K.K. Barrett combine to create a visual environment that’s never threatening, the future as a kind of agony-free zone.
On camera almost every second, Phoenix’s everyman performance reveals Theodore’s deep vulnerability. He’s responding to a voice and to how he imagines Samantha to be.
Johansson, whose voice blends chuckles, sexiness and intelligence, makes a totally convincing Samantha. Mara excels in a small role as Theodore’s estranged, angry wife, and Adams adds rumpled charm as Theodore’s neighbor.
Jonze’s take on things seems strikingly original because he isn’t attacking an ominous new system or exploiting the future to make a sweeping political statement about the present. He uses artificial intelligence as a springboard for examining what happens to relationships when one partner evolves beyond another. He wonders whether we really fall in love with others or with phantoms of our own making.
Technology or no, those questions likely will persist into the future. Credit Jonze with finding an artful, intriguing and pleasurable way of restating them.