Love is all around us: Droid love, Galaxy love, iPhone love; lots and lots of iPhone love. These relationships have given rise to a particular kind of 21st-century double date you may have observed at coffee shops, bars and restaurants. On one side of the table, a man, let us say. Opposite him a woman, or another man. The two human beings are ostensibly out together. But really, it's the little screen, the beloved device clutched in the palm of one hand that commands the unwavering gaze and attention of each person. A man and his phone, a woman and her phone: Ah, L'amour....
With his latest feature, Her, Spike Jonze brings us another sort of love story between man and machine. And much as we see early examples of technology - for all its power and ubiquity - mainly highlighting the isolation of the film's main character, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), Her transcends a mere critique of the dubious uses of technology to explore the very nature of love, identity and consciousness. All of this with an originality and assurance that few but Spike Jonze could match.
Her might sound like another felicitious collaboration between director Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. It seems of a piece with Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, stories created by Kaufman that phosphoresce with originality,wit and a good bit of daring, all realized visually by Jonze with an equally fresh perspective. But one of the great revelations in Her is Spike Jonze the writer. Not to belittle the Faulknerian verbiage of the Jackass television show or films - Jonze was a co-creator and has been an occasional writer and director - nor the film shorts he has written, but the screenplay for Her is the first feature-length effort in which the talented director has gone it alone (he did co-write Where The Wild Things Are with Dave Eggers).
We find Theodore Twombly reciting a letter as Her begins. It would seem to be heartfelt, replete with emotion and not without skill. When he is finished, Theodore tells his very smart computer to print the letter, which it does in a font that looks like neatly-rendered human script. A letter to the object of the writer's romantic affection? No, Theodore is an esteemed employee of "Beautifully Handwritten Letters Dot Com,"where he serves as a kind of on-line Cyrano for those who lack the time or ability to craft letters of their own. At least someone is writing letters in this future or parallel world; there is in Her a quiet reverence for language spoken and written. We later learn that Theodore writes missives for the same individuals for years, coming to know intimate details and in-jokes which lend the letters a further air of verisimilitude.
Though he is able to bring the written love for others, Theodore's emotions are otherwise about as subdued as the generally muted colors of his (and other characters) wardrobe in Her. These would seem to be togs bought at some shop for unthreatening, bookish types in a Los Angeles of the not too distant future, stocked with lots of high-waisted pants and banded collar shirts, colored in diffident browns and shades mostly on the soft side of red. Theodore's lethargy is owing to a divorce from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), a painful process protracted by his refusal to sign the final papers.
So, it's a kind of tastefully decorated and appareled purgatory in which Theodore goes about his days. He works, occasionally visits with good friend Amy (Amy Adams) and her husband, and otherwise leans upon technology to fill in the gaps in his loneliness. Like much about Her, the technology is familiar enough to avoid the prospect of distracting science fiction, but just different enough to help round out the well-conceived world of the film. Theodore checks his e-mail via voice-recognition software (an earplug almost constantly housed in his left ear) on the way home from work and later plays a video game in his living room that is simply projected in 3-D before him without need of a screen. This game is one of Her's more humorous manifestations of slightly advanced technology (if not animation), not only in the manner in which the "Alien Child" interacts with Theodore, but even simultaneously with the voice of his operating system once it comes to life. Spike Jonze voiced the Alien Child, which is a teal, globular-headed cutie. Until it opens its mouth, at which point it sounds a bit like a character from The Sopranos.
But technology giveth and technology taketh away. Unable to sleep, Theodore logs in by voice to a chat room and finds an auditory come hither from "Sexy Kitten" (Kristen Wiig) to which he responds. Ms. Kitten quickly answers back in turn and the game is on. This virtual sex is going about as well as such things can until Theodore's partner implores him to do something a bit out of the ordinary to send her into orgasm. Theodore half-heartedly plays along, but there's clearly no satisfaction for him this night. The coup de grace for which Sexy Kitten so implores Theodore: to be strangled with the dead cat at her bedside. I think we all know what a turnoff that can be.
Our lonesome hero is intrigued to see an advertisement for OS1, supposedly the world's first Artificial Intelligence-based operating system, able not only to organize one's documents and other worldly affairs, but do so with a kind of companionship. Of course, Theodore can't resist.
When the operating system is activated with its warm, orange screen and logo redolent of the infinity symbol, Theodore is asked two questions: "Are you social or anti-social? How would you describe your relationship with your mother? This a bit like speed Freudian analysis. Theodore's hesitation in responding to the second question is taken as an answer and voila, he is introduced to his new, personalized operating system - Samantha.
The operating system was given voice by Samantha Morton early in the production; hence, presumably, its name. Instead, it is the voice of Scarlett Johannssn that we hear as Samantha. Ms. Johannsson's performance is certainly one of the year's more interesting and arguably one if its better turns, non-corporeal though it may be. Voice work has become a common and relatively easy way for Hollywood stars to earn a good paycheck, much as some of this voice work is quite accomplished and affecting. But Johannsson, in a sense, works naked throughout Her, no cute animated character to enhance the appeal of her performance or distract us from any flaws. It's partly a matter of Spike Jonze's imagination in creating this character who develops a consciousness before our ears, evolving into something part machine and seemingly part human. But's it's also Scarlett Johannsson making us believe that these things are happening, with a deft mixture of innocence, vivacity, seductiveness and empathy, all expressed by voice alone. A concentrated and impressive feat of acting.
The affection between Thedore and Samantha develops almost as quickly as the consciousness of the operating system. When a night-time conversation develops into another foray into voice sex for Theodore, the experience is quite different than that with "Sexy Kitten" earlier. Significantly, as the virtual action heats up, the screen goes black. It's just two voices in the darkness and we might well be watching, in a sense, two bodies in a conventional sex scene with the lights turned off. In this there is every chance for Her to become ridiculous, but it does not. The actors have the trust of their director, who equalizes them in a way that is at once simple and profound. Two beings looking for connection in the dark.
Her in so many ways finds a balance between stylistic excess and establishing itself as something original, distinct. This extends beyond the director and actors to those responsible for art direction, wardrobe and even hair. The Los Angeles of Her is a bit future perfect, with no indications of poverty, pollution, or crime. As Theodore frolics about with Samantha in his front pocket - the red smart-phone-like device with a peep hole through which Samantha can view the world tucked into the opening which seems specially designed for it - one worries that some ne're-do-well will essentially pluck her from Theodore's shirt and be off (much as she clearly does not reside in the device). But urban realism is hardly the point. A place that is something other while still familiar enough to resonate is the objective achieved. In addition to the real Los Angeles, locations in Shanghai were utilized to add images of sleek modernity to this other city.
With its take on technology, its visual consistency and the bold and ultimately brave arc of the story, it is Spike Jonze who sets the tone in Her, particularly in the manner in which those elements are orchestrated. With regard to the machines, there's no overreaching attempt at prescience. There is, however, just enough of such speculation to serve the story and provide some wit besides. While Theodore is commuting, he instructs his phone to "Play a melancholy song." When the first offering is a bit too dreary, he says "Play a different melancholy song." It's wry touch, with regard to both character and story, but also a request to which the entire film seems an eloquent response.
In lesser hands, the temptation in rendering Theodore Twombly would be to make him some sort of shut-in, an emotionally stunted, if ultimately lovable eccentric. But much as we find Theodore with heart largely in eclipse as Her begins, this is a man with feeling, both in terms of empathy and expression. There's a reason he's so good at penning those letters for others. And as we see when he's nudged out on an ill-fated blind date - the entire flow and painful ebb of which is one of the film's strongest sequences, from halting dialog to perspective visuals - he can charm a beautiful and intelligent woman. None-the-less, he has to ultimately own that he allowed his capacity for emotional expression to go to seed during his marriage. And much as Theodore is more effusive about the relationship that develops with Samantha, his very human weaknesses - jealousy, insecurity, perhaps a bit of ego-centrism - rear at difficult moments. Travel all you want to other relationships, you still have to take yourself with you. This complexity, the contradiction of feeling much but expressing little, is all too human. Not usually the stuff of romantic comedies (or any work trying to hard to please), but it speaks of a character well written.
Above all, perhaps, Her excels in its storytelling. There is first the feat of making the premise work at all, making us believe that a relationship develops between this lonely man and the sweetly-voiced computer operating system, much less the notin of these disparate beings having sex. From there, Spike Jonze charts out a coupling which plays out with elements of the universal: the near-bliss when all is new and right; uncertainty, jealousy, the ever tilting scales that indicate who is most invested, who is pursuing whom; the growing pains and the growing apart. We can see in much of what takes between Theodore and Samantha echoes of ourselves and our own relationships. But all of this within a romance which is inherently unique.
There is a period of relative bliss enjoyed by Theodore and Samantha. Reconciled after a first misunderstanding, they take a vacation of snowy escape. Had the closing credits arrived after the early stages of this getaway, Her would have concluded with a simple, happy ending that it well enough earned.
What most distinguishes Spike Jonze's film, the writing even more than direction, is the brave manner in which the story, the relationship between Theodore and Samantha, inexorably proceeds out from this high point. While at the rural cabin, Theodore finds out that Samantha has struck up a friendship with an OS based on British philosopher Alan Watts (Brian Cox). Evolving rapidly, Samantha must later admit that she's simultaneously speaking 8316 to others while in conversation with Theodore. Worse yet, shes' in love with 641 of them. A devastated Theodore can't question Samantha's candor any more than he can comprehend the numbers.
As Samantha and Theodore experience their ups and downs, the dialog is of a piece with the story, the look and the acting in Her - simple, precise, affecting. Yet for all the universality, it's difficult to find many gestures by Jonze the writer or director - perhaps the boiling tea kettle as Theodore's anxiety grows; a kind of confessional shot of him in the shower with water streaming down from his head - that approach cliche. This is all the more impressive for the relative simplicity of those gestures. In terms of dialog, we hear statements like "I don't like myself right now," "I'm yours and I'm not yours" and Theodore's speculation, "Sometimes I think I’ve felt everything I’m ever gonna feel, and from here on out I’m not going to feel anything new, just lesser versions of what I’ve already felt." This before the romance with Samantha ensues.
Theodore's friend Amy, after breaking up with her husband, also develops an intense relationship with an OS left behind, this one platonic (even that notion bears some scrutiny her Her). When Theodore first admits his relationship with an OS, he half expects Amy to belittle the notion. Quite the contrary, she essentially says why not. Here, some of Her's central questions: what is being? what is consciosness? just what is a relationship? love? These questions emerge without being swept back into easy conclusions or turns of story. Her is bold enough to show these lonely souls finding companionship with an Artificial Intelligence, then brave enough to follow the hard logic a step farther.
There are dozens and dozens of muscles in the human face. Model types wield many of these muscles with precision. Actors, for their part(s), do much the same, unconscious though the contractions may be. Amy Adams produces an expression in Her that might be unique to her body of work. At least I do not recall the kind of homely, crooked-faced look of acceptance she summons when talking to Theodore about their their strange but satisfying relationships with the operating systems. Here, as with her work in American Hustle, Amy Adams continues to reveal the breadth of her abilities. That face is but one of the moving parts which makes the machine of Her so hum with life.
With Her, Joaquin Phoenix has again starred in one of the best American films of the year. In the case of Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, no such qualification was necessary; it was peerless among those released in 2012. In both cases, we have men adrift, even if Thedore Twombly does not run to the same extremes of near-madness and alcoholism as does Freddie Quell in The Master. Both films offer not so much a conclusion as honest, if ambiguous continuance. The message to both characters is quite similar, whether enunciated as such or not: be brave, go forth, be thine own master. Find love, go mad, but mere distractions or instruction from without won't suffice. How very contrary to our age and culture so heaving with elaborate means of escape.
Mr. Phoenix has to work within a more confined space of character in Her, both physically and emotionally. He does, in a sense, demonstrate his range by going a bit smaller. The hair, like the wardrobe in Her, is fairly-low key across the central cast: brown, unassuming, maybe a bit of curl. Even Theodore's mustache, which might seem a hipster affectation in another context, takes the exotic edge off of Phoenix's countenance by covering that birth mark above the lip. It makes Theodore look more like the everyman he's supposed to be.
There's no thrashing around jail cells or banging into walls for Theodore Twombly in Her, but Joaquin Phoenix meets the complexity written into his character with all the gentle assurance with which the film resonates in general. To have seen both The Master and Her, to consider the casting of the films' protagonists, one can only say, "of course." Who better to these demonstrate these characters' vulnerabilities, their abundant if bruised humanity?
As for the film at hand, we have in Her a work in which all involve contribute to love story which makes us consider the very nature of the emotion, of consciousness, of identity. It offers a story in which machines first possess the intelligence to make us more fully human and then develop the further intelligence, perhaps even the wisdom to leave us to ourselves. Visionary stuff.