November 16, 2013

AFI FEST Film Review: “Her”


HER:  Buy A Ticket – Tetrabytes of Love From Spike Jonze

HER, which was presented at the AFI Film Festival before opening in theatres next month, is the first film Spike Jonze has directed from his own original script, and although its inventiveness recalls Being John Malkovich and Adaptation., the projects on which he collaborated with celebrated writer Charlie Kaufman (and even more Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which was directed by Michel Gondry), the feel is very different.  Her is set in a near-future where the borders of real life and technology have blurred even more than in the here and now, but it’s not a dystopia.  On the contrary, as in Jonze’s somewhat bungled adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, the overriding mood in Her is one of passionate yearning.  In Jonze’s universe, the machines don’t want to conquer the world; they, like us, dream of personal bliss.

Our protagonist is Theodore Twombly, who when we meet him is overwhelmed with the demands of real and synthetic emotions.  He’s dealing with the break-up of his marriage to Catherine (Rooney Mara), while his job, based in a Los Angeles of tomorrow, is to compose ersatz “hand-written” letters for clients to send to loved ones, capturing their deepest and most private emotions second-hand.  His only close friend is neighbor Amy (Amy Adams), who has her own romantic issues with husband Charles (Matt Letscher).  Theodore is marooned in environments of fakery, creating his letters by day and playing immersive video games or indulging in unsatisfying phone sex by night.  One day he signs up for what’s advertised as the first truly individual, intuitive computer operating system, able to learn and evolve constantly from new stimuli.  Theodore’s OS names itself Samantha (the voice of Scarlett Johansson).  Samantha is thoughtful and efficient, and then funny and perceptive and caring, and Theodore finds himself beginning to have feelings for her.  Even more, Samantha reciprocates those feelings, and deeply.

The obvious way for Her to go would have been to question the “reality” of those feelings, to probe the distinctions between emotion and programming, but that’s not the story Jonze wanted to tell.  Her accepts the love between Theodore and Samantha at face value–when the two of them have relationship issues, it’s not because either of them is in any way ungenuine, but because they inhabit different planes of existence.  It’s the same problem, Jonze is saying, that breaks up couples who are both flesh and blood, when one becomes frustrated with the other’s limitations, or one moves forward while the other doesn’t.  Love with a computer system is just a heightened version of any other romance.

It’s an incredibly fragile conceit, and Jonze’s ability to sustain it is remarkable.  The movie has some very funny sequences dealing with the love of a man for a binary program, but none of the jokes rupture the story’s delicate skin; the characters are fully aware of how their feelings can be viewed as objectively bizarre, and they don’t care.  As Amy tells Theodore at one point, in a way all love is insane.  While Her has a free-floating, loosely-knit style, all of its pieces fit together.  The most important of those pieces, of course, are the performers.  As opaque and off-putting as Joaquin Phoenix was in The Master, that’s how open-hearted and likable he is here, an amazing display of versatility.  Theodore is a fool at times, but he’s never a joke, a captivating audience surrogate throughout.  Johansson, even as a disembodied voice, is a wonderful Samantha, nuanced and full of a warmth and feeling that succeed in pulling us over the border of believing in her as a living being.  (It’s shocking that Samantha was originally voiced by Samantha Morton, and Johansson was brought in only after principal production was over to re-record the part.)  Amy Adams, as Theodore’s more human (although just subtly so) point of contact, provides a complicated, supportive presence that’s welcome, and Chris Pratt, as Theodore’s co-worker, brings in many of the movie’s laughs.  Mara, Olivia Wilde as a blind date for Theodore, and Portia Doubleday as a woman who plays a part in Theodore and Samantha’s relationship, shine in smaller roles.

As in his Charlie Kaufman films, Jonze here is phenomenal at presenting surreal worlds as commonplace.  The costumes by Casey Storm and the production design by K.K. Barrett are of the future, but not glaringly so, just a step or two beyond our current reality, and the same is true of the subtle special effects.  Hoyte van Hoytema’s photography (he shot Let the Right One In and the remake of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) accentuates the unusual use of colors and forms in a gentle way that’s all the more effective.  There is a lovely, spare score by Arcade Fire, laced with some beautifully chosen songs.

Serving as his own writer, Jonze prefers mood to plot, and one sometimes misses the pacing and complications Kaufman brought to the scripts for their shared projects.  Jonze is so preoccupied by the emotions between Theodore and Samantha that the story’s context can be murky in terms of how their relationship compares to those of other humans and operating systems, and how these systems are being perceived in the larger world.  It becomes clear that Jonze cares only a limited amount about the sci-fi implications of his tale; he’s just telling a love story.  (The same is true for Richard Curtis’s current time travel rom-com About Time, but that movie’s insistence on no-tech and its conventionally bumbling hero feel like affectations after a while.)

You’ve never seen a movie quite like Her, so uniquely moving and funny and filled with constant surprise.  Samantha is, in a way, a work of creative art, and her film, like her, is original and transporting.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."