We smartphone users are obsessed with our devices, so it seemed inevitable for someone like writer-director Spike Jonze to bring us a movie about a man who literally falls in love with his. It seems like a comedic concept, but Her is a love story, with all the ups, downs, and melodrama that implies. Too bad its signal strength is weak, despite some interesting ideas.
In an ambiguously undated future, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is recovering from a separation from his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara). He’s a talented writer, working for a company that produces handwritten letters for people who are too busy or inarticulate to write for themselves. It’s a job he takes pride in, but his constant creation of loving messages for others isn’t helping mend his own broken heart.
Theodore’s also a bit of a techno-junkie, so when his eye is caught by an advertisement for a new artificially-intelligent computer system, he buys it on the spot. The new software caters itself to his personal profile, and, calling itself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), begins interacting with him. As Samantha’s consciousness grows, Theodore is struck by her willingness to listen and the ease with which they get along. Soon, man and machine are falling in love.
The comic angles here are more than obvious: imagine your significant other having full access to your email, messages and digital life. But to his credit, Jonze plays his story out as straight as possible. Like any other couple, Theodore and Samantha must negotiate the limitations and boundaries of their relationship – there are occasional grins, but just as many moments that are poignant, tender, and yes, sometimes even creepy.
The nice thing about Her is that it gives its characters freedom to be themselves, without getting bogged down in the details of the idea. His best friend Amy (a mousy Amy Adams) barely bats an eye when she learns about Theodore’s new girlfriend. He and Samantha even go out on a double-date with a work colleague. Only Catherine seems to find the whole thing repugnant, and even then only to justify her negative opinion of her ex. The movie raises good questions: Is Theodore and Samantha’s connection any less real than the connections we humans make via technology? Can we love something that’s not physically there, and can it actually love us back? And even if it’s "artificial", can we deny our real feelings?
Her is at its best when exploring these ideas. The problem is, Jonze tries too hard to frame it in the context of a "normal" relationship. The track of Theodore and Samantha’s romance is so familiar and cliché that we’re often three steps ahead, waiting for them to catch up. The premise allows for some slight twists, but these otherwise great ideas play out too slowly to avoid stretches of boredom.
Phoenix gives an intelligent and moving performance, his tenderness hidden beneath a shy demeanour, nerdy glasses and mustache. His depth of feeling for a character who’s never really there is remarkable. Johansson’s voice is a fitting partner, though she struggles near the end with Samantha’s evolution into something beyond a simulation of humanity. The supporting actors are all fine, their characters meeting their functions as sounding boards for Theodore.
In all, Her isn’t too bad a romance. Maybe wait for it as a renter. Then you can stream it onto your iPhone, where you and Siri can watch it together.
Tags: movie review