Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore
Scarlett Johansson as the voice of Samantha
Amy Adams as Amy
Chris Pratt as Paul
Rooney Mara as Catherine
Olivia Wilde as Blind Date
Portia Doubleday as Surrogate Date Isabella
Matt Letscher as Charles
Spike Jonze as the voice of the Alien Child
Brian Cox as the voice of Alan Watts
Directed by Spike Jonze
"Her" is an exquisitely conceived and executed fable about the need for, and difficulty of, human connection. A fable which looks not just at the obstacles which have always plagued us in this arena but the new ones we have created for ourselves in our never-ending quest to stride those old hurdles. Obstacles like social media and other technologies which in theory bring us closer together but in reality drive us further apart, encouraging us to turn inwards without realizing it. The result is a world where we eventually become okay with having a complete stranger (Phoenix) write our most intimate letters. A world where such insightful building blocks of countless relationships can be dictated by a man who has become unable to interact with other human beings, preferring spending time in anonymous chatrooms. Or playing video games. Or falling in love with his new artificially-intelligent operating system (Johansson).
Writer-director Spike Jonze ("Where The Wild Things Are") has chosen to show us this most ancient of problems through the most modern of lenses. By pitching it into the near future, he has created not only fertile ground for his conceit but also license for us to believe in the silly. It's not by accident that fairy tales and fables never take place in the here and now. It's a fantastic piece of juxtaposition, showing us how little we change no matter how much we change. And if Jonze is not the first person to make that comparison, it has rarely been done with such a light touch.
It would not work if the future world were not as believable as it is. Jonze's conception of a world almost like ours, and its light as a feather realization, ensure that it is. He and frequent production designer K.K. Barrett have created a future we could almost live in, from the smart phones that tell us about the world around us (so that we don't need to bother looking) to the controls of Theodore's video game. It's aided by some of the best cinematography Hoyte Van Hoytema ("Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy") has yet put on screen, showing a world that focuses on its people, not its effects.
Because it also would not work if the characters were not as solid as the world they're in - a frequent failure point for fantasy. The fact that it does so, and does so well, is in part the accomplishment of Phoenix and Johansson who create a living, breathing relationship despite the fact that they are never actually acting together [Johansson replaced Samantha Morton--who was on set and was talking to Phoenix though they never saw each other--in post-production]. The other part is the strength of Jonze's script, which never forgets that the connection between these two must be real, no matter how strange it may seem to describe. It also has a wicked sense of humor, from Theodore's misadventures in an anonymous sex chatroom to the exceedingly rude child star of his video game (who seems to represent Theodore's own loneliness and in ability to grow up and move on in life).
That said, despite all the futuristic trappings it is still dealing with old, old concepts which means there's not much it can ultimately say that has not already been said before. As forward looking as it is, it also wants to be timeless as a good fable should be, which requires a certain amount of orthodoxy. Theodore and Samantha's relationship must go through the same dramatic twists and turns of any relationship drama, and if its conclusion is somewhat unique in its execution, it certainly is not in its conception. For all its fancy clothes, "Her" is a little plain underneath. That's not a bad thing.