Thank god for filmmakers like Spike Jonze. At a time when more and more movie releases are becoming more and more predictable in the hands of paint-by-numbers directors, along comes Jonze to dispense with the formulaic and offer up something completely different. With Her, Jonze has constructed a captivating, unconventional love story in which Joaquin Phoenix once again delivers a bravura performance. A film that perhaps only Jonze could make, Her is set in Los Angeles in the very near future and delves into the not-so-remote possibilities and potential pitfalls of advanced communications technologies. That is not to say that Jonze is sounding a warning bell because Her presents this future world as one in which notions of love and relationships have been expanded beyond the confines of what we might ordinarily see as ‘normal’.
Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a gifted writer employed by a company to write “hand-written” letters for customers: couples, friends, families. Theodore is very good at what he does, dictating poetic and heart-warming communiques to his computer, which designs and prints the letters. Still reeling from the end of his marriage to childhood sweetheart Catherine (Rooney Mara), Theodore lives alone in a luxury apartment and wiles away the time playing computer games. When he installs a new Operating System onto his computer, the program comes replete with the voice of ‘Samantha’, with whom Theodore can communicate via an earpiece and portable mobile phone-like device. Soon enough, Theodore’s reliance on Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) to take care of everything from managing his emails to proofreading his work develops into a much more profound relationship that ultimately morphs into a romance. As unlikely as this might sound, it is a great credit to Jonze, who also wrote the screenplay, and Phoenix that this relationship works. In this future world, in which high pants are seemingly back on trend, the relationship is accepted, by and large, by the people around him.
High-waisted fashions aside, the future world of Her isn’t that much different to how we live today, with technology playing an ever increasing role in every aspect of people’s lives. However, whilst Jonze doesn’t shy away from the potential isolation this brings (people drift along, wired to the hilt and oblivious to those around them), but the film very much explores the potential for technology and artificial intelligence to facilitate new connections. Initially, it is hard to discern whether Samantha is simply responding to Theodore because this is what she is programmed to do, but eventually it seems as though a genuine friendship has developed. When a blind date (with Olivia Wilde no less) ends badly, Theodore’s disillusionment sees him turn to Samantha for solace and it is these moments that push the relationship into romance.
As he has done with his previous films (Being John Malkovich, Where the Wild Things Are), Jonze presents love as a complicated state of being and certainly, as is to be expected, there are complications aplenty in this most unusual of couplings. Although, it must be said, many of the issues that emerge are no different to those that impact upon any relationship. The problem is that, whilst Samantha has seemingly developed emotions and a genuine affection for Theodore, it soon becomes apparent that a theoretical understanding of love cannot prepare her the challenges and expectations that a relationship entails. Theodore experiences the full gamut of emotions, from despondency to pleasure to satisfaction to resentment to jealousy, each representative of the various stages of the relationship, all of which are presented with a sense of authenticity that defies what should be an outlandish premise.
With the exception of Catherine, whose displeasure seems more to do with the fact that Theodore has found happiness, the other characters in the periphery of Theodore’s life, such as his neighbour Amy (Amy Adams) and co-worker Paul (Chris Pratt), embrace Samantha (figuratively, if not literally) and Jonze somehow gets us to believe in this relationship, even though there is a sense of inevitability about how it might pan out. It is no surprise that Jonze has secured an Oscar nomination for the screenplay as the dialogue is exquisite and the interactions between Phoenix and Adams are beautifully executed. Make no mistake, this film won’t appeal to everybody, but it is a considerable achievement that delivers on many levels.