BY DAVID BRANDT
If you’re single, like me, then you’re probably going to be troubled by Her.
Spike Jonze’s film about one man’s love for his computer operating system is set in an undefined future, but it speaks with great depth – and some shame – to today’s techno-personal culture. Theo (Joaquin Phoenix) is a former news reporter who works for a letter-writing service in a Los Angeles in which almost everyone is seemingly capable of walking anywhere they want without the aid of mass transit.
Theo gets paid to put his own emotions into words for customers who need a sincere note sent to their loved ones. (It would be an easy joke to make that Theo’s occupation means Jonze is inferring that social media will eventually make most people horrible writers, but I’m now banking on that industry to arise eventually and make me a rich man.)
While he spends his days using speak-to-type technology to essentially lie for hire, he faces restless nights as he stalls on signing the divorce papers with his first and longtime love Catherine (Rooney Mara of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Throughout the film, he looks back on the relationship’s highs and (but not nearly as much) lows as though he were trying to decipher just where things went wrong – a very relatable tendency.
But does he miss Catherine or does he miss having a personal connection with someone? And if it’s the latter, just what is a personal connection in the time he’s living in? This is the primary theme the film addresses as the story progresses, and Jonze isn’t coy about it.
One day as Theo walks to work, he’s allured by a street advertisement from an Apple-like tech company that suggests the sting of being alone can be resolved thanks to its new operating system – an A.I. so advanced that it requires little more than installation for it to become self-operating … or, frankly, a self.
Enter Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), a name chosen by Theo’s new operating system in less than a second simply because it read a baby-naming book and “liked the name.” Right away the film wants to test you: Is Samantha really a “her,” or just an “it”? Can you have a regular human relationship with an “it”?
For Theo, Samantha starts out as a handy techno tool that meets the expectations set by the marketing, similar to how any of us today might react and enjoy to the newest iPhone or Android device. It organizes emails and messages, including judging which archived emails and messages should be destroyed, by deciphering their importance based on how it expects the user to feel about it.
And while it’s understandable to make comparisons with the iPhone’s Siri, Samantha quickly develops the one key difference between them that drives the development of the character throughout the film: curiosity … about Theo, about human connection, about love and, yes, about sex.
Theo gladly supplies Samantha with the information she seeks, and in return Samantha provides Theo with the comfort he wants to help fill the void left by the crash of his marriage. But here’s a harsh reality that isn’t addressed directly in the film (but is certainly clear to the audience): Samantha is the rebound relationship. And like many rebound relationships, one partner hasn’t entirely gotten over his or her last relationship. The rebound is quick fix that helps ease the pain of losing the previous love.
The film brings the relationship debate back down to earth through Theo’s neighbor and friend since college Amy (Amy Adams), a documentarian whose own marriage gradually crumbles. Amy’s relationship with her egomaniacal husband is a conflict of personalities – you don’t really care how they got together, but you immediately see the strain growing. Amy’s impending gloom is also eased by an operating system named Allie, which belongs to someone else entirely.
So operating systems can meet and greet with other users? What about other operating systems? This idea transitions Samantha from “it” to “her.” The more human she becomes, the more Theo finds appeal in the relationship they have formed together. But realities are faced and awkwardness ensues, and Theo is left in the same condition most of us find ourselves in after the demise of a rebound relationship: “What do I really want in life now?”
If you’re a fan of the TV show The Office, several scenes in the second half of the movie may inspire the same kind of unsettling realization that Michael Scott’s foolish logic occasionally leads to something you’ve done in real life. There’s just no getting over the admission of having made such a terrible error in judgment. But without such unfortunate inspiration, Her wouldn’t be nearly as good a film.
Surprises from Her:
- Look for subtle comic relief from Chris Pratt of TV’s Parks and Recreation, who plays an administrative assistant at Theo’s office and admires Theo’s work.
- Keep your ears open for distinct celebrity voices playing other OSes and OS users, including Kristen Wiig, Brian Cox and the director himself (as a mad video game character).
- Johansson’s voice is alluring and arguably the best fit for the role, but Adams continues to be Hollywood’s best scene stealer, and in what is probably the first supporting role she’s had for some time, the ease with which she captures a scene remains uncanny.
- The video game Theo plays early in the film may not be very far off from what exists today.
Her is a unique film that speaks to our desire for comfort in whatever form – human or machine. It may leave you questioning just what makes up a valuable relationship, so whether you’re single or in one for the long haul, I would probably avoid suggesting this as a date movie. But let this be your theater movie for the month.