Cinematic Visionary Spike Jonze is up to his tricks again, with this bold, imaginative love story about sad sack divorcee Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) and his relationship with an operating system that is designed to meet his every need (voice of Scarlett Johansson). Her has been nominated for five Oscars, including best picture and is the favorite to win the best original screenplay award. Jonze has already won several awards for his script. Set in the near future in a city that resembles Los Angeles, Theodore is a lonely writer who hasn’t recovered from the dissolution of his marriage to Catherine (Rooney Mara). He refuses to sign the divorce papers and has failed to make a significant connection with a woman since his wife left him.
Until he meets Samantha, the name his OS selects for herself, after reading a book of thousands of babies’ names in a millisecond. As Samantha and Theodore continue to talk she becomes an intimate and integral part of his life. Jonze then makes a bold leap and has Theodore fall in love with Samantha. This ridiculous and outrageous plot twist may be hard to swallow, but if you don’t buy it you will never like the film.
There are so many interesting and original ideas in Her, I feel a bit guilty for not liking it more, but eventually it comes down to this: I found it intellectually intriguing, visually poetic, psychologically smart, but emotionally unsatisfying. Often the film underlines its smart ideas without dramatically keeping you interested. For example, Theodore is a professional love letter writer. He writes letters for couples and lovers based on their specific relationship. The letters than are handwritten by a computer (see irony) and mailed to love ones. An obvious metaphor for virtual love and walls humans put up for true intimacy. Get it?
Theodore himself, is just not that interesting and heroic. He is a passive protagonist and Jonze has gone out of his way to make him ordinary. The concept being, I assume, is to demonstrate “that falling in love happens to everyone” or “everyone is lonely and could fall in love with a voice.” Again, I get it, and although Phoenix is a terrific actor, Theodore bores me. He does have a character arc and changes a bit, but this change isn’t particularly dramatic or involving.
How much you like Her will depend on how much you are involved in the love relationship between Theodore and Samantha; this includes all stages of their relationship. The cyber sex scene that seals their virtual intimacy will either hook you or make you squirm and giggle. Guess which category I am in? Cyber dating and online relationships are a big part of the world today, but in life you believe the person you are chatting with and sharing your most intimate thoughts is real and eventually you will meet and have physical contact, so the cyber sex is a preview of what is to come. For me there is no dramatic stakes knowing Theodore or I (as the movie-goer voyeur) will never see Samantha. If she leaves him, who cares, she was never there.
This aside, I commend Jonze for being a bold filmmaker, and many people like this film and are moved by it. For me however when I go to the movies I want to feel something, I want to be invested and escape, not read a critical graduate school thesis.
PS the cinematography (Hoyte Van Hoytema), Production Design (K.K. Barrett) and music (Owen Pallett) are excellent. It is a beautiful film to look at.