When we meet Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), the hero of Spike Jonze’s exquisite new film Her (which closed the New York Film Festival last weekend), he is a reservoir of melancholy. His wife is divorcing him, his job is depressing, and he lives a life of crushing solitude. He is, in short, the perfect audience for OS1, the world’s first artificially intelligent operating system; “It’s not just an operating system, it’s a consciousness,” boast the ads. And sure enough, Samantha, the voice (provided by Scarlett Johansson) that purrs from his desktop and smartphone, is bright, and funny, and wonderful — everything he can no longer imagine in a partner. Early on, as he pours his soul out to her, he utters one of the movie’s key lines: “I can’t believe I’m having this conversation with my computer.” But he does, and he falls in love with her as well.
Her is set in a Los Angeles that’s about five minutes into the future, its computer technology just a hair more advanced than our own, and when its trailer hit last summer, the shorthand for its plot in most quarters (including this one) was something along the lines of “guy falls in love with Siri.” But in talking to press after Saturday’s media screening, Jonze (who both writes and directs) said the spark came much earlier than that. A good decade ago, he became fascinated with a kind of instant messenger service, where you could have “conversations” with a computer program, though it quickly “devolved to where you could tell it was just parroting things it had heard before, and it wasn’t intelligent. But it was a clever program. I didn’t really think about if for a long time, but then eventually I thought about the idea of a man having a relationship with an entity like that, a really fully formed consciousness. And then I thought about the idea of, what would happen if you really had a real relationship? And I used that as a way to write a relationship movie, and a love story.”
Anchoring the film is Phoenix’s raw, open work, yet another in his string of eccentric yet painfully honest performances, one all the more impressive in that he plays most of his scenes technically alone, with long scenes, often long takes, where the camera is just holding on his face. And we don’t blink. “I wanna say I trained really hard,” Phoenix said of the challenge, “but I’m an actor, so I’m accustomed to walking around my house and kind of talking to myself. We rehearse all the time, so I don’t think it was that dissimilar.” But he gives all due credit to his director for pulling the character’s sadness out of him: “Spike just broke me, to be honest. Going into the movie, all I was concerned about was trying to feel natural with something that wasn’t there. And I think I kind of overlooked the loneliness of the character? And in the first couple of weeks, Spike just crushed me.”
At the other end of the line, Johansson couldn’t be better — she’s sexy, sparky, and wise, pulling off the tricky task of creating not even a fully formed, but forming persona (“Basically, I’m evolving,” she tells him early on, “just like you!”) with only her voice. As his ex-wife, Rooney Mara’s only got one full dialogue scene, but it’s a doozy, her sadness and regret telling us all we need to know about the otherwise unexplained buckling of their marriage. And as his best friend Amy, Amy Adams is (as she is in her best performances) a beacon of warmth, someone who can turn a tricky, bathos-prone line like “I want to allow myself joy” into a mission statement.
Jonze’s confident, clean directorial style continues to impress, from the crisp visual sense of his future Los Angeles (created by combining L.A. and Shanghai) to his deft intercutting of idyllic flashes from Theo’s blissful marriage into his current despair. In one of the picture’s most daring visual moves, he slowly fades to black when Theo and Samantha first “have sex” (phone sex, basically) to keep from cheapening it, from letting it become a joke. He’s playing this relationship straight.
Which is not to say the picture isn’t funny, from Theo’s early, spectacularly depressing yet hilarious phone sex session to the setup program’s cheerful “thank you” that interrupts his rambling monologue about his relationship with his mother to the awkwardness between Theo and Sam the “morning after” they first have phone sex (“I’m not gonna stalk you!” she insists). But it’s a delicate and at times uncomfortably honest story, and one that’s true to their intimacy, with dialogue that beautifully captures the idealism and excitement of falling in love. They talk to each other, and it’s real talk; intelligent, nuanced, give-and-take dialogue. She becomes just like a girlfriend who he’s on the phone with all the time, like it’s a long-distance relationship — just one restricted by physical property rather than distance.
But there’s more to it than that. Samantha provides Theo with comfort, with the illusion of a relationship without, as his ex-wife notes, the difficulty of one (or so she thinks). The film’s real subject, Jonze surmised, may well be “what you hear when somebody says something to you” — which are often two very different things. We hear what we want to hear from people, and attach ideas and baggage and emotions of our own to them, and Theo is part of that equation; his job is at a website called Beautifulhandwrittenletters.com, crafting “personal” letters for lovers, family, and friends, calling up those ideas and emotions and deploying them at will. As praise for his work, Theo is told, “In all of them, we found something of ourselves.” Yet the kind of prefabricated emotion Theo provides is the same thing Sam ends up giving him.
When Theo asks Amy if he’s a freak for falling into love with Samantha, her response is perfect: “I think anyone who falls in love is a freak. It’s a crazy thing to do. It’s like a socially acceptable form of insanity.” One half of the relationship at the center of Her may lack a physical form, but it is nonetheless a film about the universality of romance: its longing, its intensity, and its transformative power — for the best, and the worst. The outcome of this highly unconventional relationship is warm and funny and tragic, all at once. And so is this very lovely film.
Her is out November 20 in limited release.