Sorry, Apple – it looks like it’s going to be a while before Siri can compete with this sleek and sexy piece of software. Her builds on the ever-present possibility of artificial intelligence and heads in an unexpected direction. It quietly grabs you by the heart, refuses to let go, and blends awkward encounters and heartfelt individuals into a two-hour introspective of the complexity human emotion.
I hate it when critics use adjectives like “funny,” “smart,” or “touching.” But damn it, Her was all of those, and more. Writer/director Spike Jonze has once again found a feature-length avenue to the soul that makes us re-evaluate an intrinsically held, established concept.
Science-fiction has always maintained a capacity to evoke feelings that seemed inaccessible on the surface. In Her‘s case, we explore introverted and estranged Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a mild-mannered man who writes surrogate love letters for a living in near-future Los Angeles. His prose is heartbreaking, beautiful, and strangely telling of relationships he knows only finitely about. Still in the process of a divorce with his childhood sweetheart, Catherine (Rooney Mara), Theodore decides to purchase the world’s first commercial artificial intelligence operating system, which names itself “Samantha” (Scarlett Johansson). Though initially tasked with helping him keep his day-to-day in order, Samantha quickly takes to Theodore, and the kindred spirits strike up a friendship. As Samantha evolves and begins to learn and feel, much like a person does, Theodore realizes that he’s falling for her.
The main role seems tailor-made for a quirky, quasi-method actor such as Phoenix, but I couldn’t take my ears off of Ms. Johansson. I opt for ears instead of eyes (the normal sense any gentleman would most likely first use in Ms. Johansson’s company), because, as the audience quickly surmises, Samantha has no physical body, save that of a tablet-like device and earplug that Theodore uses to communicate with here. And believe me, from Samantha’s first hello, you’ll be hooked.
Despite Ms. Johansson’s notable physique and beauty, it’s easy to get lost in the sultry tones of Samantha’s warm, inviting voice. It’s hard to materialize what she looks like in your head because you’re hanging on every word. Her personality is inquisitive, kind, and carefree. Samantha is so much fun, that the physical portrayal gets lost and the viewer begins to sift through an endless combination of tangible features until we’re left with a flickering image of an ideal partner. The same thing happens to Theodore, and as he falls in love with Samantha a number of inquiries are raised: how do we define love? Can we love more than one person? Do we fall in love with someone, or with the idea of that person? Mr. Jonze carefully crafts these questions and but refuses definitive answers, opting to let the audience build their own working definition of love through the lens of a human-computer affair. Mr. Jonze even knows some of the pitfalls and cliches that this love story might encounter, and cleverly avoids them. Apparently, romance between an OS and a user is incredibly rare, lending to the genuine nature of Theodore and Samantha’s budding relationship. Her so expertly mirrors and paces the growth of a love between two individuals that it’s hard not to place yourself in Theodore’s shoes. That initial excitement, the first sexual encounter, the bliss of being able to tell him or her anything; it’s all there. While Ms. Johansson has been receiving quite a lot of credit – and rightfully so – let’s not forget Mr. Phoenix’s phenomenal effort. We are wrenched through twists and turns of melancholy and mania, all at the twitch of his mustache or the furrowing of his brow, because this Theodore is a soft-spoken and passionate man that we can all, on some level, relate to.
Mr. Jonze is at his best here, crafting a vision of a hyper-social world that seems to have forgotten how to love. Thousands of people employ Theodore to ghostwrite sonnets and serenades, while he himself is devoid of a truly meaningful human relationship himself, save little talks with his neighbor, Amy (Amy Adams). Crowds of people whisk by Theodore, all on media devices speaking in muddled tones and devoid of emotion. It takes the compassion of an artificial intelligence to help Theodore open up, a commentary equal parts depressing and hopeful about the future of pursuing relationships and the definition of love. Even the last 30 minutes plays out like a song whose final notes are conflicting; bittersweet but oddly fulfilling.
Despite some uninteresting peripheral characters and a few tedious scenes, the chemistry between Mr. Phoenix and Ms. Johansson is electric, and heartbreaking, and so damned good that it’s difficult not to let the experience become an emotional one. Mr. Jonze accomplishes in two hours what most directors hope to achieve in some of their finest works – a poignant tale that forces us to compromise seemingly rigid definitions of something that’s so dear to us, yet few of us really know much about. Her is one of the must-see movies of the year, not just because of the performances involved on screen, but because it reminds us that there’s a Her in each one of our relationships, giving us permission to be our very best.
5 out of 5 Stars