It took me a while to realize this, but the title of Spike Jonze’s new picture, Her, is the entire movie in a syllable. The protagonist, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a man who ghostwrites love letters for other people, a job that requires an extraordinary amount of empathy to do properly, which he more than has. And yet, good as he is at articulating others’ feelings of love, he’s still reeling from a recent divorce, and alone in that uniquely terrible way one always is under those circumstances. On a whim, he upgrades his computer’s operating system with a new model of artificial intelligence. Once it finishes calibrating, it takes the form, in personality, of Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), who takes it upon herself to see if there is any other way she can improve his life. And, the two fall in love.
Yes, the two fall in love, as however immediate the joke about “the movie where Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with a computer” is—and it’s even more immediate than the Arrested Development one that we should all get out of our systems now before continuing—the relationship is between two fully autonomous beings, even if one is an artificial intelligence.
There are many different “her”s in Her, and although the movie is ostensibly told from Theodore’s point of view he serves more of a role in each of their lives than they do in his. He exists to give of himself, at the expense of his own happiness. His marriage to Catherine (Rooney Mara) fell apart for reasons never specified, but which are irrelevant: relationships end, and often it’s nobody’s fault. All is mortal, even love. A blind date with a romantically bruised woman played by Olivia Wilde starts off brilliantly and then goes suddenly, horrifyingly wrong. And then, finally, the blissful romance with Samantha, no less real for her being disembodied, but inevitably obstructed by that inconvenient fact of her not having a body.
Even then it isn’t as much that as it is the fundamental nature of her being a learning artificial intelligence, a longstanding trope in SF, extrapolated to any number of frequently dystopian outcomes. Here is perhaps the bleakest: however much they love each other, can an artificial intelligence not constrained to the server on which it’s originally hosted ever find love with a human intelligence that can’t (and despite the protestations of the Ray Kurzweils of the world, probably won’t ever) be ported from its meat-based processor?
It’s not spoiling Her to imply that all is not easy between Theodore and Samantha, nor is it to say that their relationship unfolds in a beautifully, if painfully real fashion, and that by halfway through the picture, the awkwardness of Theodore having to hold up the camera lens on his phone to make eye contact with Samantha completely gives way to the romance between the (for lack of a better term) souls within those objects. Her is a dazzling, and completely inseparable, meeting of romantic comedy/drama and science fiction, and is the high point of either genre in 2013.
Her is Spike Jonze’s fourth feature as a director, and the first he wrote himself (Being John Malkovich and Adaptation both having been written by Charlie Kaufman, and Where The Wild Things Are being a collaboration with Dave Eggers). It’s the best feature of Jonze’s career, and with all due respect to his earlier excellent work, it’s really not even close. The writing is never less than completely honest, and perfectly and reciprocally works with the visuals to create a fully realized and credible near future. Set in Los Angeles but with significant amounts of footage also shot in Shanghai, some of which is composited to create a vision of “Los Angeles plus,” Her imagines a world where Apple’s gleaming, bland aesthetic is gradually and inevitably creeping in to all facets of design, with some marvelously subtle touches in the fashion (there are some very odd zippers in this world, and Theodore dresses rather like the artist Cy Twombly, the influences of whose work can be seen throughout). Cinematographer Hoyt Van Hoytzema (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy), production designer K.K. Barrett, and costume designer Casey Storm deserve a bow here as well.
Really, Her is stunning, with a powerful sweep, an exquisite lead performance by Joaquin Phoenix, equally fine work from the rest of the cast, and absolute peak filmmaking from all involved. I’m out of words. See it.
Her is in theaters now.