Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore
Scarlett Johansson as Samantha (voice)
Amy Adams as Amy
Olivia Wilde as Blind Date
Chris Pratt as Paul
Rooney Mara as Catherine
Portia Doubleday as Isabella
Matt Letscher as Charles
Sam Jaeger as Dr. Johnson
Katherine Boecher as Her
Evelyn Edwards as Mother
Laura Colquhoun as Maria
Laura Kai Chen as Tatiana
Jen Kuhn as Kathy C.
Directed by Spike Jonze
Sometime in the near future, an L.A. writer named Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is living a lonely existence, working at a job where he writes professional love letters, but when he installs “OS1,” an artificially intelligent operating system, he also meets “Samantha,” an intuitive and sensitive voice on his computer (provided by Scarlett Johansson) who helps him get through a rough break-up with his wife. Things get more complicated when they fall in love with each other, a relationship that can’t possibly work.
While I wasn’t really a fan of Spike Jonze’s version of Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” I would never discount him as a filmmaker due to his brilliant music videos and his earlier collaborations with Charlie Kaufman – “Adaptation” and “Being John Malkovich.” He wrote and directed “Her” and it feels like a much more intimate and personal story than anything else he’s done before, but it’s certainly not going to be for everyone.
The main character Theodore has Phoenix sporting glasses and a ridiculous moustache, and it’s a very different character we’re used to seeing from the actor, far more subdued and more like the characters from Jonze’s earlier films, most notably John Cusack in “Malkovich.” Essentially, he’s an introverted nerd, a bit pathetic really, who plays video games and reflects on his relationship with his ex-wife (Rooney Mara). There are certain parallels to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “Don Jon” as we watch Theodore’s day-to-day coping with his break-up, trying to get pleasure from meaningless phone sex. Things change when he discovers “OS1,” a computer operating system that takes “Siri” to the next level with free thoughts and feelings allowing it to communicate and sympathize with its user.
“Samantha,” as she names herself, is very intuitive and empathic to Theodore’s needs, reading his Emails and making sure he makes his appointments, while also laughing at his jokes. In fact, she seems more like a personal assistant than a computer operating system, but no surprise, the lonely and horny writer becomes attached to her even installing her inside his smart phone so they can go for romantic walks around Los Angeles.
In some ways, this could be seen as Jonze’s alternate take on a meet-cute romantic comedy with the filmmaker using the idea to explore love and relationships and technology and how the three interact. It seems like such a simple and obvious love story premise (and it is), one you might normally see in an indie movie with a much smaller budget, but it doesn’t seem like it has anywhere to go beyond exploring this unconventional relationship in a similar way as Derek Cianfrance’s “Blue Valentine,” and it doesn’t always work because it lacks the human connection and emotion needed to make it work.
That issue comes to the fore once it gets into the meat of the story, in which we’re basically watching as Phoenix interacts with Scarlett Johansson’s voice and that only goes so far even if Johansson gives such a stirring performance with just her voice, confirming her place as one of the sexiest women on earth. Even so, there still seems to be a disconnect between the two of them, and personally, I’m strongly opposed to the people pushing for Johannson to get any sort of supporting actor awards for the voice role, since it was actually Samantha Morton’s voice that Phoenix was interacting with on set.
There isn’t that much more cast to speak of – Amy Adams as Theodore’s neighbor and best friend and an obvious and viable physical option to Samantha; their scenes seem just as robotic as when Phoenix is on his own. Rooney Mara is also wasted in the movie, relegated to flashbacks and an awkward scene where they’re signing divorce papers. Phoenix’s scenes with Olivia Wilde as a very strange blind date gone horribly wrong give the movie a much-needed uplift, but like Chris Pratt, she’s sorely underused. Theodore’s interactions with actual humans are fleeting before we’re back to watching Phoenix sitting or lying around talking to Samantha’s disparate voice.
As might be expected, a relationship like this can’t possibly work out and as cracks start to appear due to Samantha not being a physical woman–they even try to use a surrogate to consumate their relationship–the film starts becoming more dramatic and serious. It gets infinitely more interesting at this point, as Theodore and Samantha try to make their unconventional relationship work, even going public with it.
Some may find this whole thing to be quite romantic, but I just found the relationship to be disturbing especially when Theodore starts having “OS sex” with Samantha, which isn’t that much different than the sex chat we listened into earlier. It’s a scene that just seems very obvious and as unnecessary as the amount of needless expletives Jonze inserts into his screenplay, which detracts from what might have been an almost impeccable screenplay otherwise.
As might be expected from a director with as many musical connections as Jonze, the film has a great soundtrack, which is one of the film’s biggest saving graces thanks to an ambient score by Canada’s Arcade Fire, a stark contrast to their edgier recent album “Reflektor.” In fact, the music probably does more to evoke emotion in the film than the actual performances.
The concept behind “Her” is an interesting one, but the execution makes it hark back to Jonze’s former collaborator Charlie Kaufman’s first movie “Synecdoche, New York,” making you wonder why they don’t do more films together since the sum is clearly better than the parts.
The Bottom Line:
Maybe I would have loved Spike Jonze’s “Her” if I was fully on board with its fairly obvious premise or cared more for Phoenix’s character. Like all relationships, it’s a complicated film that’s hard to love but impossible to hate, and though it gets better once it overcomes its painfully dull first hour, it still feels uneven at best.
Her is now playing in select cities, expands into more theaters on Christmas Day and then expands nationwide on January 10, 2014.