AFI 2013 Review: Her

Her Joaquin Phoenix

Now that Spike Jonze has made equal films from his own writing, rather than Charlie Kaufman, it’s apparent that he is tuned in and empathetic to human emotions. Jonze has taken cynical scenarios in Where the Wild Things Are and now Her, and imbues them with tangible, reachable happiness. He has explored human emotion by escape – a boy drops into a fantasy world of beasts in Wild Things, and in Her, a man falls in love with an operating system that he plugs into his ear – but Jonze makes his characters come back to reality, like awakening from a slumber, ready to start over.

Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) works for a letter writing service. A great observer of people’s idiosyncrasies and cute imperfections, he’s crafted love letters for older and younger couples, parents, etc for years. Expressing the things that they feel they cannot. Perhaps they never tried; technology has given them an out.

Theodore is going through a divorce (Rooney Mara’s role is mostly in dialogue-free flashbacks, as a sort of Malick Pixie dream girl; until they meet over lunch to sign the divorce papers). He lives alone, passing most of his free time with an immersive video game that talks back to him, or using his handheld device to cruise other lonelies and share a virtual bed.

That is until Theodore purchases an operating system that evolves to not only help its owner, but to evolve in personality through interacting with them. This is Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).

And, this is where I need a writing service to articulate the love that I have for Her.

Jonze has done something remarkable with Her. He’s created a love story that feels brand new, yet abstractly familiar. He’s also created a world that feels brand new, but also harkens to so many different eras that it might not even be the future at all.

Her is set in Los Angeles. It is a perfect choice. Los Angeles is a place with natural beauty, warmth and a vastness that includes mountains and an ocean. The vastness is also very isolating. Much like most of the technology that we’re constantly plugged into right now, it is evolving to align with one’s very own profiles, or personhood. It’s a push to separate from other persons by enhancing your own uniqueness.

Los Angeles is a staunchly individual place. This makes it a modern city, and modernity is becoming so individualized that many people are communicating with others in a less interpersonally informed way. We can Google each other. When Theodore goes on a date with a beautiful, highly educated woman (Olivia Wilde), Samantha assists by looking up extra information about her. As Theodore casually drops known entities into his drink date, Wilde calls this “romantic.” When he can’t immediately commit to her she calls him “creepy.” Our expectations have shifted with technological advancements – our devices adjust and update so fast that we expect immediate satisfaction with everything and everyone.

That’s why Theodore falls in love with Samantha. By being able to read all of his emails in his entire history in a matter of seconds, she immediately knows everything about him.

If there is any sort of fault with Her it is that, like an evolving system, there are a few too many attempts of bringing a new idea, product or service into the story. But in a way, although it makes the film feel a little overstuffed, it is also very true to the idea of supply and demand in technology and instant capitalization on an idea. Also, from a relationship angle it gives new meaning to a couple “trying to spice things up” if the rise in OS relationships is to be something more than a fad.

This is part of the remarkable nature of Her. It isn’t about hiding an odd, bodiless relationship. Theodore’s boss (Chris Pratt) accepts Samantha immediately, and even asks for them to go on a double date. Theodore’s friend down the hall (Amy Adams) also eases into an operating friendship after a separation from her husband. So instead of making Her a comedy of errors of hiding his ether girlfriend, Jonze has instead used her bodiless status as a means to explore relationships and how we learn to have doubts. We all start like Samantha, free of doubts and expectation – it’s something we learn.

Phoenix and Johansson do double lifts, and they are remarkable. Phoenix, in essence, does two performances at once. He has to have his own performance and also inform how Johansson’s voice will perform. After wearing the marks of a man beaten down by the world in The Master, Two Lovers, and his own performance art crash and burn I’m Still Here, it’d become taken for granted that Phoenix has so much joy. His goofiness and innate whimsy, like Jonze’s, is infectious. It’s a perfect marriage of director and actor. Phoenix, himself, might very well be taking the mantle of this generation’s best actor.

Johansson has done a remarkable job in creating a fully realized character with just her voice. Samantha’s voice starts as chirpy, engaged and full of wonder. She learns to hesitate, pause, not speak her actual feelings and turn off her owner/lover if she feels like she’ll say something he doesn’t want to hear.

Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, production designer KK Barrett and costume designer Casey Storm have immaculately created a world that both parallels our present with our past, yet still feels remarkably futuristic. Hoytema and Barrett use warm colors to break sterility, and mid century inspired furniture to break apart projections. For the city, they splice the skyline of Los Angeles and Shanghai into a seamlessly beautiful, yet imposing, surrounding. The future interiors feature components that try to calm the vastness of the outside world: the elevator glass is transparent tree limbs, the office space has glass the color of birthday balloons, and the railway system has the cleanest white imaginable. Of course, by the time Los Angeles gets a remarkable metro system we’ve all been lost to our penchant to plug into a different, separate, self-rewarding reality.

Again, however, Jonze is a humanist. He jokes and prods about technology, but he also believes that we will always remain human and connected to each other. It’s there in the song Samantha writes for Theodore because they can’t take a picture together, or the joy of stopping and watching someone else. Ultimately, it’s our and Jonze’s compulsion to share a moment with someone else that really shines through. You can feel the collaborative nature of Jonze not only with his cinematographer and crew, but also in the dedication at the end of the film: James Gandolfini, Adam Yauch, Harris Savides and Maurice Sendak – all humans who made his created worlds feel very real and all who were lost during the production of Her. It’s what we create that gives us longevity, and technology has given us all access to that longevity, as long as we still connect with one another.

In the end, there’s a distinct lack of fear about the future in Her, and that is what will give Jonze’s new film longevity. This isn’t a time capsule. The desire to be loved and understood is timeless. 


Brian Formo is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel. Follow him on Twitter at @BrianEmilFormo.