Doleful, fervent, mirthful, heady, and seriously smart, Her is a penetrating, perceptive look at modern relationships; a legitimately grown-up, existential meditation on what it means to be human; and a wistful, whimsical musing about where we are and where we might be going. It is part dark satire, part metaphysical comedy, part bittersweet romance, part brain-bending sci-fi, and wholly the handcrafted product of a visionary.
It’s Los Angeles, around 2040. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), common wearer of high-waisted trousers and orange shirts, lonely, wounded, stammering, and warm-hearted, spends his days working for BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, managed by Paul (Chris Pratt, Moneyball, Zero Dark Thirty, making it three-for-three since 2011), where he composes letters for and to strangers, putting their doting thoughts into words. He may be awkward in his personal life, but in this domain, he’s capable of being expressive and eloquent.
Theodore is stalling the signing of his divorce papers after his marriage to Catherine (Rooney Mara) has disintegrated. In the wake of heartbreak, he talks with his best friend (an unrecognizable Amy Adams), engages in cybersex with SexyKitten (Kristen Wiig), and goes on a blind date with a nameless beauty (Olivia Wilde). None of these encounters bring lasting gratification, until he meets Samantha. It seems to be true love. The only complication? She’s an operating system.
If Her sounds like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind meets Lars and the Real Girl, with elements of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner, you wouldn’t be far off, and Her is as good or infinitely better than its ancestors, even if their influences are detectable. Its plot sounds like a gimmick or a brilliant conceptual gag, but ends up haunting and oddly wonderful.
As Theodore, Phoenix delivers a herculean performance, at least equal to – and the inverse of – his belligerent Freddie Quell in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 head-scratcher The Master. Scarlett Johansson, replacing Samantha Morton as the voice of Samantha, is equally convincing – sexy, sultry, husky, and delicate – in her greatest feat in a decade. (Ironically, Her is almost the flip side to Lost in Translation.) It’s a crying shame both will get passed over by the Academy.
Writer-director Spike Jonze is one of the most lyrically fanciful filmmakers around. He specializes in taking high-concept premises and turning them into thoughtful ruminations on human relationships. Being John Malkovich, in which a puppeteer discovers a portal into the actor’s mind, and Adaptation., about the labyrinthine curlicues of literary creation, were screwball fantasias that plugged into the zeitgeist. Both scripted by Charlie Kaufman, they spoke about fame and celebrity in new ways.
Her is not as sly or knockabout as those movies. But it’s unabashedly amorous – a fabulist’s love letter to love – and the romance creeps up on you. Jonze is a free-form romantic who understands that love is where you find it. His flair for approaching big ideas from oblique angles enables him to take what could have been a glib narrative and infuse his screenplay with wry, observant tenderness and deep feeling.
Exquisitely conceived and executed, and disturbingly spot-on – watch for “Class mom” and the hilarious “Alien Child” inside the interactive videogames – the film exhibits Jonze’s gift for understated poetry intertwined with intimations of philosophy. Lyrical flashback montages illuminate the love once had, and lost. These silent, flickering inserts of Theodore and his ex-wife recollected in tranquility are sublime, engineered with dreamlike flourish.
Shot with a bright crispness by Dutch DP Hoyte van Hoytema (Let the Right One In), Her depicts a future LA as a clean and gleaming city filled with smooth surfaces and bright colors. The production design by K.K. Barrett; editing by Eric Zumbrunnen and Jeff Buchanan; and score by Arcade Fire and Owen Pallett are award-worthy.
Impossibly handsome, solipsistically daring, and profoundly transcendent, Her is a strange, stinging, and poignant love story that measures the emotional toll of living within the virtual world. It’s as much about the difficulty any kind of lovers have getting it right, as they grow toward each other and then away again, as it is about love in the age of technology. While Theodore’s ardor for Samantha is fraught from the start, it empowers him in the end to come to terms with his lingering love for Catherine. Jonze invites us to leave his film ready to connect and communicate.
Endearingly familiar yet enticingly unique, Her is a vulnerable, earnest movie that strikes no false notes and earns the sadness and reflection it evokes in its audience. Deeply insightful and attuned to the risks, fears, surprises, and wonders of intimacy, its strikingly ephemeral satire regards the way we’ve become tethered to technology as being past the point of no return, but with intense curiosity, Her asks us to never forget that we’re still very much alive.