“Her” Written and directed by Spike Jonze; with Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt, Olivia Wilde
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There is something elusive and hard to grasp about “Her,” the new movie by director Spike Jonze, but this quality serves the movie well. While watching it, and even more so afterward, the film registers as a blurry mix of the complex and the simplistic, the mature and the childish, a mixture of moments that fully exhaust the potential of the movie’s ideas and style, and others that lapse into blandness. It has been a long time since I had such conflicted, contradictory reactions to a film without ever losing my appreciation for it.
“Her” locked me into an oscillation between diametrically opposed responses, and that movement is, to me, its central theme. It is less an exploration of the nature of love and reality (topics that will undoubtedly send many film students rushing to their laptops − and I always feel a certain aversion toward movies that seem designed as material for seminar papers) than a reflection, both concrete and abstract, of the existential awareness of our time.
The time is the future; the place is Los Angeles, here an elegant metropolis where life seems cold and alienated (some of the scenes were actually shot in Shanghai). Much of the movie takes place in the spotless apartment of the hero, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix, impressive as always), a geeky-looking man with glasses, a mustache, and pants hitched up a bit higher than necessary. Separated from his wife (Rooney Mara) and struggling to cope with his loneliness, he is given to bouts of melancholy that other people find hard to take.
All this changes when he is offered a new operating system for his computer. He chooses to make its persona female, and the system, with its friendly voice, names itself Samantha. I don’t know why Jonze, for whom this is a first solo screenplay (he cowrote “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation” with Charlie Kaufman, and “Where the Wild Things Are” with Dave Eggers), chose the name, but it brings to mind another Samantha who became part of the collective pop-culture memory. The heroine of the Sixties television program “Bewitched” was both a perfect housewife who catered to her husband’s every need and a witch with an independent, even rebellious mind of her own. In “Her” we find a modern-day version of that: this Samantha, too, pleasantly acquiesces to whatever Theodore asks − and although we can’t see her, we do hear the smile in her voice every time she does − and she too has “wondrous” abilities (such as being able to read an entire book in a split second), though not ones we would call “supernatural,” since magic here has been replaced by technology.
In many ways, Samantha is the perfect mate in a reality in which experience is increasingly virtual, and privacy − the ability to maintain a world that is yours alone − gradually disappears, not because people are forced to give it up, but because they want to. And yet, obsessive sharing with the collective does not in any way diminish the basic sense of human loneliness. On the contrary, even; perhaps this need to report, photograph and share everything immediately only increases that sense of isolation. Much of “Her” follows the bond that develops between Theodore and Samantha, a bond whose fundamental power balance shifts many times. However, what I found interesting about the movie is not the story of a relationship between a man and a woman; that story, in which Theodore is gradually liberated from his emotional isolation, is not particularly deep or original. Rather, “Her” is intriguing for its representation of the reality in which this relationship forms, a reality of imbalance, not only between Theodore and Samantha, but between Theodore and us.
Whereas for Theodore, Samantha is only a voice, we know that this voice belongs to Scarlett Johansson (who, by the way, does an excellent job in her “limited” role). This knowledge gives her voice the concreteness of a mental appearance, which the hero does not share. We do not know whether Samantha’s virtual presence as a voice is enough for him, or whether he also pictures her in a female body − and if so, what she looks like to him.
Jonze’s movie is most successful at portraying both the seductive and the chilling aspects of the reality in which Theodore and Samantha “meet.” Its success is in large part due to the look cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema has crafted: meticulous, perhaps even too pretty, conveying the sense of distance and alienation that I, for one, feel while watching the constant barrage of photos uploaded to Instagram or the various social networks, a collective whole that is becoming ever more remote from the private. What was once intended to preserve experiences and memories achieves the opposite in this over-profusion. The obsessively documented reality becomes a substitute for reality itself, which exists at some distance from it, and the personal, while supposedly growing more intimate, actually becomes less and less so.
This alienation comes through clearly both in Theodore’s apartment and in its urban surroundings, where Theodore continues to communicate with Samantha while passing people who are also engaged in conversations with their own invisible others. The image is one of loneliness and estrangement, and I myself still feel the same while walking down the street or riding the bus. I have not yet gotten used to the sight of so many people talking to someone that no one else can see. I find that this disturbs my sense of connection and stability, and “Her” effectively managed to reflect that feeling to me.
Since Jonze tries to tell a story about an individual man who is both unique and representative, the plot has some odd or undeveloped elements. Before meeting Samantha, Theodore plays a 3-D video game in which an animated character insults him. This character disappears before we have a chance to figure out what it means. Does it represent the hostility the beleaguered Theodore feels from the world around him? Does it stand for some bad friend? A woman who left him? His fear of a new relationship? These questions remain unanswered, and the scenes that show Theodore playing the game become somewhat unnecessary; they belong to the movie’s less substantial components.
Even odder is Jonze’s choice of a profession for his hero: Theodore is a writer who composes sensitive, intimate letters for those who cannot write them for themselves. Not only does Jonze fail to show us how such a job came about, but the fact that in the future he imagines letter-writing is still common enough to require such a service is relevant to the main themes of “Her,” which involve issues of individuality and collectivity, the personal and the anonymous, the real and the pseudo-real.
But if in giving Theodore this kind of employment, “Her” tries to say something about these matters, its message remains forced and elusive. The story linking Theodore to one of the three main non-virtual women in the movie, his good friend Amy (Amy Adams), who is facing a romantic crisis of her own, is likewise insufficiently developed and predictable.
Despite these flaws, “Her” is an original, intriguing work with little of the self-aware cleverness that marred “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation” for me. This is, above all, a work that manages to take the existential and emotional pulse of its time, and even if the finger it applies does not always press hard enough, the movie is sufficiently mature to offer the viewer a satisfying challenge nonetheless.