I’ve yet to develop the proper appreciation for Spike Jonze. His films always seem more smartassed than smart. They feel less like movies to be watched than movies to be discussed at cocktail parties and coffee bars as proof of intellectual credibility and basic hipness. While I have some serious problems with his latest, Her, it’s easily the Spike Jonze picture I’ve liked the best. This is not to say that I think it’s anything like a great movie. Nor do I find it all that effective as a commentary on how we are being dehumanized and isolated by the very connective devices that ought to be bringing us closer together. There is a great film to be made on the topic, but this isn’t it. In fact, 2013’s little seen Disconnect comes nearer the mark. (Then again, I don’t really have any desire to be told what’s wrong with the world by a writer-producer of Jackass movies and TV shows.)
What works for me about Her is less its high-concept story than the believability of its emotions. The film’s sense of pain and loneliness and the need for human contact comes through as very authentic and touching, even while its more fantastic elements often do not. Jonze’s decision to set his story in the near future makes it fall into the realm of a cautionary tale, but it doesn’t entirely convince. Apart from presenting a world in which everything is improbably clean (it feels like one of those 1950s musicals with soundstage streets that have never been walked or driven on), Jonze’s future is mostly marked by men wearing pants with waistbands up near their armpits. The look seems wholly arbitrary, and is akin to polyester zoot suits in search of the long coats and watch chains.
Our main character is Theodore Twombly (a typically too-mumbly Joaquin Phoenix), whose wife (Rooney Mara) is divorcing him — an event we’re meant to believe has sent him into an emotional tailspin. Theodore, however, is such a numb character that it seems there must be more wrong than that. He makes a living crafting handwritten personal letters for inarticulate people to give to their loved ones. (Apparently, handwritten anything is so rare in this future that no one recognizes anyone’s handwriting.) In a sense, he’s already so used to the concept of synthetic romance that he’s the perfect target for the operating system that will transform his life and propel the story. This operating system that calls itself/herself Samantha (brilliantly voiced by Scarlett Johansson) is the perfect match for lonely, awkward Theodore. Samantha has the ability to grow, change and develop into a more complex “being,” which turns out to be the problem.
No matter that there’s an inherent “ick” factor to the whole thing, it’s surprisingly easy to believe that Theodore falls in love with Samantha, and that she responds to his feelings. Less easy to believe is that the only person who seems at all bothered by this is his soon-to-be ex-wife, who is apparently the sole Luddite in the film. That everybody else goes along with it is, I suppose, a comment on our switched-on, constantly connected world where actual human interaction and text coming over the phone are of equal import (except that it’s hard not to feel that the text takes precedence). Fine. I get that, but I don’t really buy the idea of a couple blandly going on a double date with a guy and his phone. This is one of several problems I have with Her. (Consider, for the moment, the ramifications of publishing a book of your work-for-hire love letters, which the film never does.) And yet … the emotions of it all come through, and the ending is devastating in its humanity. That counts for much. Rated R for language, sexual content and brief graphic nudity.
Playing at Carolina Cinemas.