I don't know if a film has so immediately disarmed me before. The opening shot of Spike Jonze's Her shows a man named Theodore Twombly (Jaoquin Phoenix) making a most unapologetic and bombastic declaration of love to an unseen partner. The trademark of most Phoenix performances is that awkward, affected and even haunted soul that made him such an actor of note. Everything but the awkwardness is gone replaced, instead, with an earnest and real presence that makes this film soar. It isn't long before that declaration is debunked as not his own but is, simply, a part of the job. The camera pans out to reveal a number of similar spaces in an office where a secretary answers the phone for BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com. The expression of human emotion is outsourced in Jonze's vision of the not-so-far away future.
The Los Angeles, replete with large mall-like concourses, glittering skyscrapers and efficient mass-transit, feels like a Jamba Juice palette meets green-living. The thousands staring down at their smartphones have been replaced by men and women wearing earpieces to interface with their various devices. They chatter away as Theodore passes by, though he's busy checking his email and listening to voicemails right along with them. Everything is rather sterile and a bit off-putting. The setting is one in which a rather unlikely love story will unfold.
Theodore, much like everyone else, purchases the latest operating system known as OS1. It will be the first of its kind with artificial intelligence baked right in. Initial setup involves questions about how social he is and even how his relationship with his Mother is. Once that's done we get to meet Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). She jumps right into her role right away as digital assistant and gatekeeper to many of the things that define who Theodore is in this digital age. Samantha is possessed of such computing power and artificial intelligence that she begins to assimilate the most basic of human tics into her digital persona. It isn't long after that the constant presence of her within his life becomes far more than just a user/operating system relationship. Johansson, while never being seen on screen, accomplishes so much with that velvety rasp she employs that is joyous, sweet, manipulating and sexy.
The satirical vein that runs through the first hour or so seems to keep setting up a Luddite aside. I kept expecting a character to start waxing poetic about the alienation that all this technology creates. We get, instead, moments of real romantic depth that feel like they take place between two people. One of those people lacks a physical body but that doesn't really seem to matter all that much. The story, as it unfolds, beguiles the audience into following along and I know I did without fail. All the while we were really getting a meditation on what it is to be human and what the nature of love really is.
Does it really matter that Samantha lacks a physical form? Does it? They manage to go on a date with a real flesh-and-blood couple anyway. This is a film that examines some really heady issues yet never gets mired down in that. It is still, at its very heart, a story about a man falling in love with a woman. There are moments of real comedy sprinkled throughout and some utterly heartbreaking ones too. The flashbacks of Theodore's wife, Catherine, show that he just can't understand what went wrong with his marriage and for every moment of wistful remembrance there seems to be a wrenching memory of the pitfalls of their failed relationship.
The creamy ochre-hued cinematography of Hoyte van Hoytema mixed with all the Arcade Fire, Karen O and Breeders tunes along with the high-waisted trousers makes for a gorgeous looking picture. Jonze, in his first time spearheading the writing duties, does a marvelous job of never giving you quite what you expect. He has been known, in the past, for giving us weird and ambitious films like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. This is, without a doubt, his most personal of films and we're the benefactors for it. Joaquin Phoenix has never been better and I can't rightly recall feeling as hooked into a romantic drama like this in a long time.
There could have been a much deeper exploration of the social even political effects of such a globally affecting thing as OS1. How would the world change if you could just go purchase a potential partner for yourself from BestBuy? That isn't the concern of Spike Jonze, though, as he's just telling a really intimate and beautiful love story. It also serves as a look at the love affair we have with our technology. It is every bit a digital Annie Hall as it is anything else.
Did you manage to check out "Her"? Let me know in the comments below! More Best Picture nominee reviews to come.