Published on January 29th, 2014 | by Clint Davis
Summary: Spike Jonze once again creates an outstanding, original piece of film. He continues to get away from just making "weird" movies and this time challenges how we think of love.
R | 125 min.
Director & Screenplay: Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson
Studio: Annapurna Pictures | Distribution: Warner Bros. Pictures
Ever since Spike Jonze stopped regularly making badass music videos back in the ’90s and moved into filmmaking, he’s continued to raise the bar for himself with each project. Somewhere along the way he stopped being known as a guy that just made weird, offbeat pictures to a guy that told some of the best stories you can see on a screen. His latest film is his best work yet.
When I first saw a trailer for 2013’s her, I immediately wrote about it here on Overdue Review. Of course it looked quirky, dryly funny and full of American Apparel-esque costumes, as are trademarks of Jonze’s work, but it also looked totally different for the director. Her is much lighter and brighter than his previous films. Whether it was 2002’s Oscar winner Adaptation which was a violent film full of resentment and jealousy, 1999’s Being John Malkovich which featured a dingy color palette and a broken protagonist, or his 2009 adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are which was was wrought with the underlying rage of a child, his movies are generally heavy in tone.
The screenplay is the first Jonze penned on his own and reveals a side we haven’t been privy to in his career thus far–the lover. Her is a love story through-and-through as its main character Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) falls for his computer’s artificially intelligent operating system named Samantha (voiced perfectly by Scarlett Johansson). He’s emotionally plagued by the failure of his marriage to Catherine (Rooney Mara) and leans on his close friend Aimee (Amy Adams), who’s also going through a painful divorce.
The film takes place in the near future, a world where everyone’s got an earpiece in 24/7, communicating most often with their electronic devices. We get plenty of shots around a spotless, gorgeous Los Angeles as Theodore walks back and forth from work, seeing he’s not an oddball for carrying on conversations with his operating system, but rather one of the populace. One of my favorite things about her is that it doesn’t alienate or judge its characters, allowing us to see them in any light we choose to.
You could agree with Catherine’s take that Theodore dates a computer because it’s easy and he’s incapable of making a “real relationship” work or you could also think she’s a total slag who should mind her own business–unlike most writers, Jonze doesn’t make that distinction for us. The characters of Her are presented as real people with normal problems. Theodore is not painted as a weirdo as, say, Being John Malkovich‘s Craig Schwartz seems to be, he’s simply made a different choice. In the world of her, falling in love with an operating system is not so odd either; even Aimee refers to her female OS as a close friend.
I also want to applaud this film for containing one of the rarest things to find in a Hollywood movie: A platonic relationship between two opposite-sex friends. One passing line reveals that Theodore and Aimee dated briefly in college but that it “didn’t feel right,” leading to the strong friendship we see between them in the movie. Take the ending how you’d like but seeing a man and woman onscreen that don’t have to hook up to exist together might be the most daring thing about her.
It’s also extremely rare when a movie can change the way we look at love. Romantic subplots are present in nearly every story told in modern history, regardless of the medium, but they’re usually tacked on and predictable. When Stanley Kramer made Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in 1967, it gave audiences a chance to see love beyond the boundaries of race. In 2005, Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain pushed the boundaries of mainstream love even further. Now I’m not saying marriage between man and technology is the next great barrier to be broken down but her certainly hit me as a movie that told an important romantic story, truly showing that love can exist anywhere. Jonze also handles the unorthodox love story in an apolitical way–another move I’ll applaud him for.
The actors in this movie’s cast each pull their share, making for a great ensemble performance. Phoenix continues a post-I’m Still Here hot streak with another deep performance. He embodies Theodore completely, showing almost no similarities between he and Freddie Quell, the brooding timebomb he played in Paul Thomas Anderson’s underrated The Master. Adams is once again wonderful in one of her sweetest performances yet, making Aimee the type of character any hipster would dream of meeting at a record store and taking out for coffee. Johansson proves to be a spot-on casting choice as the voice of Samantha, coming off as incredibly sexy in some scenes but also sweet and naive in others. Her voice makes it a bit easier to buy this man falling in love with a disembodied computer system.
Her is a movie that easily could have been written as a silly five-minute sketch on SNL but instead turns into a legitimate piece of long-form storytelling. If the movie’s hipster-heavy audience turns you off, don’t let them win–this is a great film with mass appeal and further proof that Jonze is one of the best, most original filmmakers we’ve got.