Director Spike Jonze has been known to take on some very strange projects, including the great films “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation,” films that truly delve into their characters (sometimes quite literally), giving you an emotionally touching experience that is something of a rarity in cinema today. While he may not have written the films he’s most known for (that was actually done by brilliant Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman), it still took a great amount of genius to bring shape to the madness. However, for Jonze’s latest project, “Her,” he takes on both writing and directing duties to continue his examination of the human spirit, exploring themes involving our relationship with technology and going further with it than most would think possible.
Taking place a little ways into the future, the film centers on Theo (Joaquin Phoenix), a professional letter-writer who has recently gone through a break-up with his wife, Catherine (Portia Doubleday). He’s somewhat of a loner and only appears to have a couple of friends from work, Amy (Amy Adams) and Charles (Matt Letscher). His day to day life is pretty much routine: going to and from work, checking his various messages along the way. One day however, he notices that a new artificial intelligence operating system has been released and decides to give it a try. After a quick set up, he meets Samantha (Voice of Scarlett Johansson), the voice of his new OS. The two quickly hit it off, beginning a complicated romance that will push the boundaries of human/technology relations.
“Her” is a sweet, simple film that deals with some deep, complex issues. In his portrait of this lonely man, Jonze has crafted something of a thesis on love in the technological age and how far some are willing to go to find the companionship that they can’t seem to find in real life. With Theo having recently come out of a break-up, he finds himself unsure of his dating prospects. His lonely nights are sometimes filled by going into chatrooms and randomly striking up a conversation with others who can’t sleep. The one time we witness Theo doing this is more than enough to show that it’s not exactly the kind of relationship he’s looking for.
When Samantha comes along, everything begins to change. He finds himself opening up more and having a good time as the two get to know each other. As you can expect, issues begin to crop up, primarily that he has started dating an OS, who has no body and no real emotions, but Theo hardly seems to care. That is, until his ex-wife points out that he’s unable to handle real emotions, which begins to make him think about what he’s doing. But are Samantha’s emotions merely simulated, or are they something real? Perhaps it only needs to be real enough for Theo to feel something.
These existential questions are one of the driving points behind Jonze’s film. Others may look at Theo’s relationship with Samantha as an oddity, but what does that matter if he feels true companionship with her? Some of the film’s strongest sections are some of its simplest, such as a brilliant scene in the first half that explores these questions even further. The scene merely has Theo in bed as he talks to Samantha about various topics, such as Theo’s previous relationship and Samantha’s emotions, but it’s scenes like this where the themes Jonze is working with truly begin to resonate.
On the flip side, there are times when the film doesn’t work as well as it could. For instance, take a section in the second half of the film that has Samantha hiring a surrogate body so that she and Theo can be intimate together. You can tell what Jonze was going for, especially given the big deal made out of Samantha not having a body to call her own, but you can too easily tell where the scene is going to lead to given the awkward notion of having Theo try to make out with a complete stranger.
There are also scenes in the second half that feel as though the film is just drifting lazily along. Make no mistake, “Her” is a great film, but I can’t shake the feeling that it could have been even better had it been a little tighter. With just a little cutting, the second half would have flowed much better rather than feeling like it was just a stretched-out montage of the relationship as it progressed. However, in the scope of what Jonze has accomplished with this film, it's a minor quibble that most will find forgivable.
No discussion of “Her” would be complete without giving credit where it is due. In this case, the performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johannson are to be strongly applauded. Phoenix pours his heart into the role, giving us his sweet, vulnerable side as he disappears into this lonely man who gets a new outlook on life with the most unlikely of relationships. Johannson likewise gives it her all, displaying a depth of emotion that is rarely heard of in voicework. It would be a little strange to say they have a great on-screen chemistry, but with the high level of performance, you’d swear the two were right there on the screen together.
Jonze has made a very compelling film here, putting forth many questions that there are no easy answers to. Theo and Samantha’s relationship doesn’t follow the standard rules of romance, but that’s because it can’t. Instead of the usual clichés, Jonze uses this opportunity to go deeper into the nature of emotion, using fully-formed characters that are brought to life with outstanding performances. In that respect, “Her” is unique, and while it’s not without a few hiccups, it remains very insightful. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself dwelling on it several days after seeing it, which in itself is a characteristic to be greatly admired. 3.5/4 stars.
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