Her is an unflinchingly, unapologetically complex and challenging film.
First and foremost, it’s an acting tour de force for Joaquin Phoenix. He carries this film from start to finish with a performance that’s charming, soulful, sad, creepy, and endearing all at once.
But because it’s so unconventional as a relationship drama, it’s certainly not for everyone. You may love it, but don’t be surprised if the person sitting next to you comes away feeling very differently.
What’s it about?
Her tells a story in a not-very-distant future where voice recognition hardware and software is perfected and in common use. The film focuses on Theodore (Phoenix), a writer struggling through the loneliness of his separation from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara, Side Effects).
By day, Theodore writes for a company that produces “handwritten” letters for consumers who wish to express love and affection on special occasions. In other words, he literally puts other people’s intimate feelings into words for them without ever having met them.
While he’s good at his job and finds some satisfaction in it, he goes home each night to a quiet, empty apartment. He goes to sleep (or tries to) in an empty bed where he has no one to verbalize and share such feelings with in his own life.
That all changes when, on a whim, he purchases and installs a revolutionary new operating system for his computer that, according to its marketing, is a fully-realized artificial intelligence that will tailor itself to meet his every need through user interaction.
After answering a few basic questions, Theodore’s computer re-introduces itself to him as “Samantha.” As Theodore soon discovers, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) is vibrant, funny, creative, and perceptive.
She’s also eager to learn more about Theodore’s existence in order to help him in his day-to-day life. As she learns more she expands her own range of thought and feeling, not just about Theodore and his needs, but also her own nature and existence.
She becomes, as the software designers promised, his perfect partner, except for the fact that she has no physical form. That deficiency becomes a very cumbersome obstacle when their partnership develops into something far deeper and emotional than Theodore ever expected.
Unconventional, but not absurd
Her certainly fits into the mold of his other work in that respect. After all, the idea of a man falling in love with his computer’s operating system, and it falling in love with him in return, will definitely be difficult, uncomfortable, or just downright ridiculous to many who take the time to see this film.
But consider that our world today is one where meeting and connecting with people online is commonplace. Through phone apps, dating sites and chat rooms people establish intimacy — sexual and even emotional — every day.
In that sense, the idea that a sensitive soul could find its mate through the exchange of words, thoughts, and emotions without the possibility of touch might not be that absurd at all, right?
Jonze does not, at any point, play this concept for laughs. He explores it gently, thoughtfully, and thoroughly, treating it as he would any relationship drama about people finding love in extraordinary circumstances and thus having to figure things out as they go along.
In that regard, there’s a great deal of content in Her that audiences might connect or empathize with. Think of it this way: who hasn’t been in a relationship that wasn’t complicated in some meaningful way, where the path to understanding and healthy companionship wasn’t clear at first and had to be navigated on the fly?
In terms of performances, Joaquin Phoenix sets a new high bar for himself with his work as Theodore.
As with many protagonists in Jonze’s films, Theodore is quirky, awkward, and inwardly focused. There’s a softness to his character, a weakness that audiences might find off-putting at first simply because it’s not what they’re used to seeing in a romantic lead.
In addition, Jonze keeps the camera lens close and tight on Phoenix’s face often throughout the film. There’s a sense of invasiveness, as though the audience is inside Theodore’s personal space, seeing emotions playing across his expressions and in his eyes that he’d rather they not see.
But it’s this closeness that allows Phoenix to reel you back in as the film goes on. He deftly conveys the confusion, the fear, and finally the joy that Theodore experiences once he discovers and embraces what he comes to feel for Samantha, and he does it all almost entirely without a physical co-star to play off of.
Amy Adams also turns in strong work here as Theodore’s best friend and confident who herself cultivates a friendship with an “OS.” Chris Pratt and Olivia Wilde are also both memorable in brief amounts of screen time.
However, there’s no doubt that this is Phoenix’s film to carry, and he succeeds brilliantly.
Of course, Scarlett Johansson deserves mention in any discussion of performances in Her.
She arguably has the toughest challenge of the entire cast. She’s tasked with bringing to life the voice of Samantha in a way that it’s even remotely plausible that a man, even one as sensitive and emotionally driven as Theodore is, could view that voice as a serious object of affection.
In a way, she’s tasked also with winning over the audience with just her voice, as well. In order for us to believe Theodore could accept her as “real,” she has to be real to us, too.
That success is no small feat. It’s one thing to turn people on with your voice, because many people, Hollywood stars or not, can do that. What Johansson accomplishes here is something else entirely, and when all is said and done it should be considered among the actress’s finest work.
With a running time at just over two hours, Her may wear on the patience of some, as focused as it is on detailing the progression of this very unusual relationship to a somewhat logical conclusion.
But Jonze and the cast do their very best to invite audiences into this not-too-hard-to-imagine future and all its possibilities.
So suspend your disbelief. Ignore all those easy jokes about this being a movie about a guy who falls for Apple’s Siri.
Give this very unorthodox-looking romantic drama a chance. You might just surprised at how much honest reality about relationships you’ll find in the fantasy.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, and Scarlett Johansson. Directed by Spike Jonze.
Running Time: 126 minutes
Rated R for language, sexual content and brief graphic nudity.