Her, the latest from Spike Jonze, is a small movie filled with big ideas. It’d be easy to write off the concept as, “What would happen if someone fell in love with Siri?” Siri, of course, is the name given to the audible operating system installed on recent Apple mobile devices. What if she had a real personality? What if she could listen? Most importantly, what if she could feel? Well, if this concept is what you think the film is about, prepare to be very surprised. Jonze uses that idea as a mere jumping off point. The film is an exploration of relationships, both romantic and platonic; A meditation on loneliness, and being burdened by our past and self-image.
It’s hard to believe now much weighty subject matter lies just beneath the surface of a story that seems to straightforward. Theodore is a man going through a divorce who, while struggling to cope with his own emotions, makes a living putting to words the feelings of others. Set in the near distant future, Theodore works for BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, where folks send in bullet points and hire professionals to “write” to their loved ones for them. Is this a metaphor and a cynical observation by Jonze about how impersonal our society is becoming? Sure seems like it. Thankfully, he underplays the cynicism. In fact, Jonze plays the whole film fairly straight- introducing big ideas without lingering long enough to say “this is deep! Pay attention to this!” He never seems to be lampooning or mocking anyone, and even- in a clever twist towards the end- spins the whole perspective of the film around.
Indeed, Theodore falls for Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johannson), and this begins his journey towards coming out of the shell he’s forced himself into ever since he split from his wife. He’s carved out a safe, simple life that revolves around work, entertainment, and brief social exchanges. He’s filled his days with video games, cyber sex, and other mild amusements in an attempt to fill the void inside him. Unlike other films about heartbreak and loneliness, though, this one doesn’t pin the emptiness he feels on his failed relationship. The way the story unfolds, you realize that there’s always been something in him that makes him hide, makes him reclusive, and it’s those qualities that contributed to his forthcoming divorce.
Joaquin Phoenix carries the film with ease. He’s in nearly every frame of every shot from beginning to end. Phoenix plays Theodore without a hint of irony. There’s never a sense of “look what a loser this guy is,” no tongue in cheek, no wink at the audience. In Theodore, Phoenix has crafted an incredibly layered, honest, and flawed character. Johannson brings a stunning amount of depth to the story, despite never being seen. Samantha is a piece of artificial intelligence that can think and feel and learn on-the-fly, and you can truly sense the character’s world expanding in Johannson’s portrayal.
Jonze’s eye for detail can be felt all throughout the film. I found myself enamored by the way he used clever cut-aways into first-person views to illustrate the way Theodore’s mind can wander. Whether he’s having a brief flashback, or just staring at tiny dust particles as they float off of a blanket he’s laying on. His approach towards telling the story filled me with a melancholy I haven’t felt since watching Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, though, considering that film was written by Charlie Kaufman and Jonze has directed two other Kaufman films (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation). I could definitely feel that there was some influence from Kaufman over Jonze as he wrote this script- especially in the very absurd, yet very human, concept of the story.
In Jonze’s version of the future, by the way, we live in a world that looks and feels like Steve Jobs’s version of the 1960s. Everything is simple, streamlined, intuitive, yet very retro. From the costumes, to the decór, and especially with the designs of the gadgets, there’s a very old-fashioned look for a very modern society. Jonze’s depiction of the video games of the future is noteworthy as well. It points to how people would seemingly rather live a fake “life” than a real one. The games shown in the film all center around mundane tasks. Walking around, lost in the woods, seeking a ship, making an unlikely friend along the way; Waking up, feeding your kids, and taking them to school. These are the diversions we may be heading towards, in Jonze’s insightful look into where our culture is headed. Again, he doesn’t hammer these points. He just drops the breadcrumbs, and allows you to follow them to your own conclusions.
While the movie feels a lot like a one-man-show, with Phoenix being dead center of every scene, his supporting cast does a great job of rounding out the story. Chris Pratt shows up once in a while to be funny in an unforced way. Rooney Mara pops up as Theodore’s very intense ex-wife. But Amy Adams, in particular, does some really lovely, subtle work as Theodore’s neighbor that he’s known for many years. It’s clear that life hasn’t gone the way she’s planned and that there’s a part of her that wonders if she might have had a better go of things if she had gotten together with Theodore, but her arc runs parallel Theodore instead of crashing into it, and the two of them bounce off each other as they speed down a new runway towards their next steps in life. To paraphrase one of her choice lines, as the two of them question what they’re doing: We’re only here a short while. While we’re here we should feel joy. So fuck it!“
Her packs a big punch with a simple concept. While you may enter the movie expecting to laugh at Theodore as he “falls” for a talking piece of software, by the end you’ll realize that the joke may be on you. The movie challenges what it means to fall in love and be in a relationship. “Falling in love is a crazy thing to do. It’s kind of like a socially-acceptable form of insanity” is another line delivered by Adams’s character. Samantha makes Theodore happy and, for a time, they were exactly what each other needed. Their lives (or “life” in her case) crossed paths at just the right point where they are able to push themselves in exciting new directions. While it may not last forever, isn’t that sense of exploration, happiness, and discovery what most of us want from a relationship?
Despite not having a physical form, it’s Samantha that opens Theodore’s mind- a man that is locked away in his head from years of making certain kinds of decisions- with one big idea: “The past is just a story we tell ourselves.” You can either let it rule over you, or you can move on. With that knowledge, he’s able to finally take his first steps forward. At the end of the day, having a partner that can blow your mind is just as important- if not moreso- than having one who will be physical with you. That’s the simple message I took out of Jonze’s unconventional, wholly original love story.