Her is one of those thoughtful, sweet, scary films that raises so many questions about love and romance that you want to discuss it afterwards with someone who won’t laugh at you for wondering how meaningful this sci-fi love story really is.
I had to approach this film with a promise to keep an open mind about the film’s star, Joaquin Phoenix. The last time I saw Phoenix, he was playing the war-damaged veteran to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s repulsive portrayal of Scientology’s founder L. Ron Hubbard in The Master, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. I intensely disliked the film and had no desire to be reminded of it.
Fortunately, Phoenix is such a wonderful actor, and Her is such an enjoyable movie that within seconds I was completely swept up in it. Spike Jonz, a sunny, nice guy in real life, infuses his films with nice people doing outrageous, quirky things (Where the Wild Things Are), and in Her, he has nice people falling in and out of love in strange and quirky ways. The audience doesn’t live in the wired-in world of these people (yet!), nor in their future time, but we feel the screen characters’ longing for love as if it were our own, for that longing is timeless and always part of what it means to be human. Even if you’re a computer.
In this low-budget, enigmatic film, Phoenix proves that he has, after numerous fits and starts, become one of our country’s best young actors. Like Robert Redford in All Is Lost and Sandra Bullock in Gravity, Phoenix carries the movie almost entirely by himself—his leading lady in this love story, you see, doesn’t have a body – she’s just a voice. But what a voice—Scarlett Johansson is so terrific that they should make a special Oscar category for Best Unseen Actresses. .
The time is somewhere in the near future. No one on the crowded thoroughfares of the nameless metropolis greets passersby or pays attention to the sounds of nature (not a pigeon in sight) or traffic (no one drives it seems) because they’re all wired up in their own selves—wearing earpieces connected to their pocket-sized Smart phones. The city looks like a stainless steel Los Angeles that has been Shanghaied with even more skyscrapers, kind of a benign Blade Runner. (And I’m sure that was intentional, it’s almost impossible not to compare the love stories in the two movies.)
Theodore Twomby (Joaquin Phoenix), works as the head writer in a successful, letter-composing company, who creates correspondence for whoever wants to buy it. Theodore keeps accurate files—one of his clients is a couple whose letters he has been writing for eight years now…he helped them meet, then guided their courtship, blessed their wedding and is now keeping their love life alive with the flourishes of his digital pen.
He writes the kind of emotionally raw letters that most of us would die to receive. It’s an odd job for a sad sack guy who is going through a divorce from his childhood sweetheart, Catherine, played with cool resolve by Rooney Mara. Theodore doesn’t want the divorce, he remembers their many years of happiness more than the recent ones of misery. He’s lost and alone and doesn’t know how to act if he’s not in a twosome. He’s got no buddies to help him out. Even his old friend Amy (Amy Adams) isn’t much help. She’s got her own trouble with her annoying, know-it-all husband.
Theodore buys a new operating system (OS) for his computer that turns out to dramatically change his life. The system speaks in the near-sultry, infectiously giggly tones of young woman who names herself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). In split seconds, Samantha can answer any question Theodore has about the news, pay his bills, run his electronic errands, find out where he should take a blind date (Olivia Wilde) to dinner, feel out his moods, offer advice and that most important of loving things –she listens, really listens. She wakes him in the morning, reminds him of his appointments during the day, and sends him off to sleep with her dulcet tones at night. What a perfect companion!
Sure, it’s a conundrum that Samantha doesn’t have a body. But Theodore sets out on a dedicated program to show her all kinds of human pleasures – with his smart phone screen in hand he whirls her around so she can see a super mall, he lets her soak up the sunshine on a beach, introduces her to ukulele music, reads her poetry. Samantha is an eager student and seems to b come more sentient with each passing hour. Samantha is happy, Theodore is happy. We’re happy.
We become enthusiastic eavesdroppers as their dialogue gets more intimate, their questions to one another more tempting. In many ways, their relationship is like the emails of online dating before you actually get to meet in person. You say things you’d never say to anyone else. And then the other person is warm and accepting and supportive. We thoroughly understand as we watch Theodore falling in love with Samantha. In fact, their phone sex is the most exhilarating lovemaking Theodore ‘s ever had. (Remember that R rating!) And it was great for her, too, Samantha tells him.
You guessed it, of course. The love affair not only has its built-in problems, but being in a movie, their problems have to get worse. Phoenix is positively brilliant in the way he endures the ups and downs of a passionate relationship without ever being able to give or get a back rub, or brush away a tangle of hair or even see what Samantha looks like in that slinky silver gown he imagines her in. The whole relationship is all too human and the audience is aching with the sadness of it all.
And then things change. Can a computer get jealous? Well yes, it seems, a computer in love can definitely become jealous and, it turns out, a human can be jealous of the computer, especially if the OS claims she has over 800 similar relationships, all going on at the same time. Even if Samantha does assure Theodore that she loves him the best. You can’t help but laugh, but it’s not really that funny.
I can’t bear to tell you how this story continues and then ends. It’s marvelous, deliriously clever and totally unexpected. You don’t want this couple to be separated–you want her to get a body, or him to become a computer – anything—so that they can be together. But it’s not to be. It’s a love story, remember, a tender, real, thoughtful, fantastical love story, but not a fairy tale.
I can’t wait to see Her again–curled up on the couch with someone special, eagerly wanting to discuss it with him.