In his fascinating fourth film Her, director Spike Jonze wisely abandons the childhood anxiety experimentation of Where the Wild Things Are for a concept more universally relevant and emotionally resonant. The setting is a not too distant L.A. where everyone walks around with a sophisticated earpiece and a tablet the size of an iPod Nano, lost in his or her own bubble whilst communicating with their operating system. Plugged into this eerily recognizable world, lonely Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) makes a living by writing faux handwritten letters for people, often for years at a time. While he’s able to accurately capture the thoughts and feelings of others for such extended periods, he’s ironically unable to communicate well with others, especially his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), from whom he’s been separated for nearly a year.
Out of this isolation and sadness, Theodore turns to a new operating system to help organize his life. Opting for a female voice, he’s introduced to Samantha (the sultry yet accessible pipes of Scarlett Johansson) who quickly becomes an integral part of his life. Though unseen, Johansson does a great deal with the voice work and ably captures the inflections that a human would convey in a given situation. In Phoenix, she finds a wonderful partner whose gradual acceptance of his OS as a legitimate companion is both believable and engrossing. Interacting with this unseen co-star couldn’t have been easy, but watching Phoenix’s face (a fine complement to his work in The Master) it’s as if Johansson was there all along and digitally erased in post-production.
With disappointments galore in the real world and an ease of communication with Samantha, the concept of Theodore slowly falling in love with this piece of software as crafted by Jonze and his collaborators is surprisingly believable. Since this is not the norm, however, Her likewise nails the embarrassment of revealing to others that one’s girlfriend is not flesh and blood. Some are more accepting, either in having OS friends/significant others of their own or simply not seeing anything wrong with the idea.
In the case of Theodore’s co-worker Paul (Chris Pratt), the openness is such that he and his girlfriend Tatiana (Laura Kai Chen) double date at the park, chatting away with one another as if a fourth body was there. Here and during a love-at-its-peak montage where Samantha makes up a song to Theodore’s ukulele composition, the relationship feels as real as any other. It’s that precise authenticity therefore that allows the subsequent complications that arise to be just as believable and renders the decisions and consequences to ring as true.
Throughout these encounters, Jonze excels in his commentary on modern life and where we may be headed without even bordering on heavy-handedness. The sight of people obsessed with handheld devices is spot on, as are the lamentable anxiety attacks when this over-reliance smacks up against the technology’s occasional inability to function. The electronics and the world around it are presented with remarkable visual clarity and the key players filling the spaces, namely Amy Adams as Theodore’s neighbor friend and a hilarious foul-mouthed video game alien (voiced by Jonze), help round out what could have been rough sci-fi edges. It’s all so successful that, after revisiting it on the big screen, I may need to alter my 2013 Top 10 list and place Her in the #5 spot.
Rated R for language, sexual content and brief graphic nudity.
Her is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.
Edwin, where can we see your 2013 Top Ten list?