For someone whose films tend to focus on decidedly metaphysical entities and concepts, i.e. “head” movies (The mind transference of “Being John Malkovich” dealt with self perception, “Adaptation” delved into the mind of a screenwriter, and “Where The Wild Things Are”revealed the inner workings of a young boy clinging to childhood with all his might), director Spike Jonze’s films are pre-packaged with alot of soul. They constantly manage to convey their more complex ideas without sacrificing emotional resonance. Much of that was thought to be due to screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who penned both “Malkovich” and “Adaptation,” but Jonze has re-worked the template to craft “Her,” a sci-fi romance able to indulge the intelligence and big ideas of his earlier work while doubling as a sweet and affecting love story that is no where near as creepy as it sounded on paper.
That love story centers around Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), an introverted recent divorcee who writes letters for those unable to articulate their feelings. Part of the gimmick of “Her” is Jonze’s commentary on the state of modern human relations, to the extent that they exist in this near future mostly on the end of smartphones, tablets, and newsfeeds. Theodore picks up a new OS, an artificially intelligent software that grows and learns like humans do. She dubs herself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson’s disembodied voice), seamlessly integrates with Theodore’s computer and phone, and she and Theodore start what eventually turns into a romantic relationship.
And that’s really the extent of the initial set-up. The real beauty of it all stems less from the standard “awkward first date, getting-to-know-you walk around, dates at the carnival/beach, sexual encounter, emotional clashing, etc.” formula than it does from Jonze’s insightful and clever screenplay. Like I mentioned before, Jonze has crafted a world where the possibilities of social networking through technology have led to us growing farther and farther apart; Theodore spends his days manufacturing emotions forcouples on paper and spends his nights playing video games with vulgar supporting characters and looking for love in online chatrooms that amount to little more than auditory arousal. The fact that Theodore manages a better connection with an artificial intelligence than he did with actual people, including his ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) but not including his co-worker and friend Amy (Amy Adams), is part of the joke, or it would be part of the joke if Jonze were even remotely interested in ridiculing Sam and Theodore’s emotional connection.
Jonze offers plenty of sci-fi insights into the possibility of AI in an operating system, including the juxtaposition of Samantha’s playful speaking manner with her emotional naivete, introducing a surrogatebody for physical contact, and even the idea of operating systems interacting with one another and forming relationships of their own.There are big ideas at play here that serve to enrich this brightly colored yet melancholy world. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytemacoats “Her” in a bright, almost saccharine haze with bold distinct colors that contrasts well with the more reserved tone of the romance. Phoenix plays Theodore as more than an eccentric, but a wounded soul with puppy dog eyes and a void that needs filling, and Johansson imbues Samantha with childlike optimism, intelligence, anda desire to feel, impressive given that she’s essentially playing SIRI with a mind of her own.
In short, “Her” never comes across as the creepy “man falls inlove with his computer” story that it may have sounded like on paper. Jonze has crafted a funny, melancholic soulful film that emphasizes the importance of connection, human or otherwise in a world where we use social networking to isolate ourselves from each other.