In every respect, Her is a beautiful work of art which transcends its medium. Spike Jonze has a visual language unmatched by any contemporary filmmaker and his first three features (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Where the Wild Things Are) showcase a talent which is as instinctive to Jonze as the act of breathing is to the rest of us. Only his fourth feature film (and the first written solely himself), Her examines the “socially acceptable insanity” that is love and the unparalleled effect it can have on the person we are.
Set in Los Angeles of the near future, Her is the story of Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a writer who lives a near hermetic existence which shields him from being hurt by those around him – and, assumedly, protects those around him from being hurt by him. He pays the bills by writing beautifully worded letters for his customers, many of whom he has “known” for years. Through his prose we glimpse the sea of emotion hiding beneath his wrinkled clothes and heavy glasses. Head perpetually looking down, Theodore seals himself away from co-workers, friends, even his soon-to-be ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) who is impatiently waiting for him to sign divorce papers.
Looking for a new distraction (his 3D video game system is not enough), Theodore purchases the latest computer operating system which includes an artificially intelligent personal assistant with hundreds of times more capability than any previous software. When the system boots up, it/she introduces herself as Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). Samantha is able to organize Theodore’s personal and professional life with astounding efficiency. The two begin to develop a friendship as Theodore explains what living in the physical world is like and Samantha thirsts for more knowledge. Their friendship turns to intimacy which leads to a relationship that is only slightly complicated by Samantha’s lack of a body. But, as they are falling in love – with feelings as real as any two people could feel – Samantha’s exponential intellectual abilities cause a conflict far greater than either could foresee.
Jonze’s work has consistently had a distinct visual style that is somehow both sparse and densely layered. He does not clutter his scenes with superfluous extras, props or set dressings so every detail he includes is integral to the integrity of each shot. More than any of his previous films, Her projects a vision that is singularly Jonze. The “near future” in which the film is set is only a few years away, so there is nothing futuristic about the costumes or sets. However, the clothing the characters wear and the architecture which populates their world is just a bit more modern than what we see today. Jonze’s team of production, set and costume designers create a world that is at once so similar yet starkly different from our own. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema does justice to all this hard work by focusing on what is so often left to dissolve into the background.
Equally impressive and moving are the performances by the actors, especially Phoenix, Johansson and Amy Adams, who plays Theodore’s friend and neighbor Amy. Each character is so incredibly unique and has his or her own outlook on the world and ways of communicating. Phoenix is terrific as Theodore, appearing uncomfortable in his own for much of the film. His eyes have never conveyed as much emotion or passion as they do here. Johansson, though, creates a fully realized character using only her voice (she is never seen on screen), a feat which few other actors could ever match. Samantha is deep, thoughtful, funny, inquisitive and we get all of this because Johansson is able to make her real despite being able to only use her voice.
Her is a magnificent film that whose soul is grounded in Jonze’s beautiful script. Emotionally complex and moving, the film is a demonstration of the pure brilliance of Jonze as a filmmaker.