The final few weeks of they year are traditionally reserved, film releases wise, for either the most sentimental ones (you know, FOR THE HOLIDAYS) or the movies Hollywood studios consider “contenders.” Movies that should win awards and be talked about breathlessly over the next few months. And somehow, Spike Jonze’s HER, a smart, wry and subtly subversive tale of love, loss, and the (heartbreaking) near future of the human condition manages to be both. Which, in my opinion, makes it one of the best movies of the year, hands down.
We first lay our eyes on Theodore Twombly as he is dictating a letter to a stranger. This is his job: at beautifulhandwrittenletters.com he writes thoughtful, handwritten (by a computer software) notes for people he never met, paid by people who love those people but are at a loss for words. Sort of like an all-purpose Cyrano of the future. And then he heads home and lives the tidy, technology surrounded life of a new bachelor. You see, even though Theodore is SO GOOD at words for other people, he has been failing to find ways to communicate properly with those around him. This has cost him his marriage, and seemingly any hope for a meaningful future relationship.
And then, someone new enters his life. Theodore upgrades to a shiny, more lifelike OS (Operating System) and after a brief (and hilarious, and telling) questionnaire is assigned Samantha, an innocent, hyper-intelligent, sympathetic companion. She is not a person, but a series of algorithms designed by hundreds and thousands of engineers, and yet she is the best conversation Theodore has had in a while.
What follows is a love story which has all the components a great, relatable love story should have (both in life and cinema): warmth, excitement, great dates, not-so-great dates, charm, disagreements, sex, and yes, inevitably some disappointments. The only thing it doesn’t have is two humans.
The cast is, needless to say, flawless with this subtle, tricky material. Theodore is played by Joaquin Phoenix, at his most arrestingly awkward. Every smile, every soft spoken word coming from him walks that thin line between earnest and slightly off, perfectly descriptive of his whole life. For a man spending the majority of the movie basically talking to himself, he fills the screen fully, delivering the smallest, subtlest of grand acting gestures I’ve seen in a movie theatre of late. Scarlett Johansson (admittedly, not a personal favorite) is Samantha (a role previously played by Samantha Morton, which was re-cast later) and for all her va va voomness and star appeal, this may very well turn out to be the role of her lifetime, and it is the one where we never see her. Her raspy, determined-yet-cautious voice is perfect for this, and the empathy she has as an actress brings to the machine, and the ease (and then difficulty) of interaction she has with Theodore is very much part of the reason why this movie works. If I was to make an Academy Award precedent for an a voice performance, I would make it for her, no questions asked. Amy Adams, Chris Pratt, Olivia Wilde, Rooney Mara, and Matt Letscher make brief, melancholic appearances throughout as the physical people in Theodore’s life and all put on all the right funny or sad or funnysad moves. Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, and Jonze himself have voice cameos too, rounding out this dysfunctional communication universe of the near future.
That near future itself is a third lead, essentially. Filming in LA and Shanghai simultaneously, Jonze creates a gorgeous, unsettling, dystopian universe, awash in warm reds and oranges, in sharp contrast to the blueness of everyone’s mood with lingering, gorgeous music by some terrific talent (Kim Deal, Karen O & co) sprinkled liberally throughout for maximum impact. This world, with its slightly more awkward clothing proportions and slightly more desperate dating scene seems viable through and through and in turn give another layer of contextual credibility to the love story between Samantha and Theodore. If this world makes sense, so do they.
A love story between and man and a machine custom made for him, can be seen as both a metaphor for real life relationships in which we just want the other person to be their most perfect version of the missing piece of your puzzle and a cautionary tale of what this warmly-colored-but-cold not-so-near future may hold. The thing is, whichever one it is, it never feels unrealistic or reads as a cautionary tale. And that is a huge part of what makes this movie great: Jonze, applying his unique brand of sensitivity here, doesn’t ever say if this whole set up is right or wrong, because he understands that for all the judgements surrounding one’s emotional decisions, the heart wants what the heart wants, after all. He is simply here to tell the tale, and you as a viewer can be taken by it, taken aback by it, freaked out, or ultimately non-plussed, because much like any great work of art, your reaction to it is part of the message. Just go see it.