“Her” is Spike Jonze’s most accomplished film, not only because it features an excellent lived in performance by Joaquin Phoenix but also because it unites the director’s disparate artistic sensibilities. After making three very good films, Jonze has finally achieved aesthetic synthesis with his first solo writing effort. Even though it falls short of greatness, "Her" perfectly balances the naturalism and emotional heft of his features with the glossy intelligence of his commercial and music video work. The film follows shy professional love letter writer Theodore Twombly as he pulls himself out of a divorce induced depression that had left him a wreck for nearly a year. As part of his healing process, Twombly reconnects with old friends, finalizes his divorce and enters into a complicated relationship with a sentient, formless operating system named Samantha (Scarlett Johansson).
While the idea of an introverted man dating his computer seems like fodder for a “Saturday Night Live” sketch, Jonze and Phoenix were careful in making Twombly a vulnerable, grounded person whose romance with an artificial intelligence feels completely real. Twombly is a walking ellipsis and it’s compelling to watch him slowly regain his confidence and empathy while never losing the soft-spoken affect he has at the beginning of the film. Watching Phoenix compose a long overdue apology has the same weight as watching a neophyte climber reach the summit of Mount Everest.
Phoenix’s moody timorousness is well-paired by Scarlett Johansson’s cheerful self-assurance, although her audio-only performance often seems disconnected from the rest of the film. Even at her lowest moments, there’s a hint of customer service rep in Johansson’s voice that makes her character feel inauthentic. While it’s likely that distance is by design, it blunts the emotional impact of a few keys scenes – like the couple’s first big fight - in a way that seems unintentional. While it’s patently unfair to Johansson, I couldn’t help wondering thinking that Samantha Morton, who was originally cast as Samantha, would have been a much better fit for the role.
On the contrary, Amy Adams’s as Phoenix’s best and friend Amy, never feels like less than a full realized. “Her” could have been an equally great film if focused on her frustrated filmmaker as she struggles to redefine her identity in the midst of collapsing marriage. Even with limited screen time and an obvious character arc, Adams is not a thinly sketched extension of the main character, she feels like a warm and three-dimensional human being. Jonze’s refusal to make Adams a romantic consolation prize for Phoenix makes Amy one of the most fully realized female characters to appear in a studio film this year.
The film’s naturalism extends beyond its performances. Jonze and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema make their futuristic metropolis the most believable science- fiction city since “Blade Runner’s” neon and smog suffused Los Angeles. The setting of "Her" is substantial because it doesn’t look particularly fantastic. There are no flying cars or jet packs to be found, but keyboards and belts have fallen out of style. Although computer operating systems have advanced to a post-human level of complexity they still need to go offline for upgrades, and while printed books have become novelty items, people still value the sentiment attached to handcrafted letters. Jonze vision of our future is optimistic, and one in which the comfort of the insular digital space has not destroyed personal interaction.
For all of the film’s verisimilitude, there are more than a few false notes. “Her” operates on a level of economic absurdity that could only have come from a place of long-time upper-class stability. It never explained how a cubical dwelling writer can afford a spacious and lushly adorned apartment. Divorce seems to have little to no financial repercussions. And aside from one hold out, the entire world seems to have greeted human/A.I. relationships with an unprecedented amount of acceptance.
And while not as noxious as a Judd Apatow production, the self-pitting masculinity of the film is a bit trying. The collapse of Twombly’s marriage is presented as being caused by his growing apart from for his ex-wife, but Rooney Mara’s visceral bitterness and anger suggest something less passive was at the root of the problem. If that relationship had been explored a little more, it would have made the whole film feel less like a grown-up fairy tale.
Still, Joaquin Phoenix is a titan and he is staggering in the film. Even if every other aspect of it had been unsuccessful, “Her” would still be a must see because of his performance. This film is a new artistic plateau for Jonze. It is proof that even without an established writer at his side, he can make create a multifaceted story with fleshed out characters. If the film falls short of greatness its only because Jonze is extends his reach beyond his grasp but ambitious misses are always more interesting than facile successes.
Mario McKellop has written about film on Examiner for the last three years and can be reached directly at email@example.com.