‘Her’: You talking to me?

December 17, 2013


Spike Jonze’s “Her” is the year’s most audacious trick: a film whose best (and longest) moments are simply dialogue between two lovers, figuring out their feelings about themselves and each other.

If that sounds like “Before Midnight” or either of the other Richard Linklater talking-lovers movies, well, OK – except that, in “Her,” we only see one of those people: Theodore Twombly, played with an open-faced neediness by Joaquin Phoenix. We experience the entire relationship through his face – and her voice.

It helps that her voice – and her name is Samantha, by the way – is provided by Scarlett Johansson. An increasingly fearless young actress, she is the voice of the next step in operating systems, or OS’s. She’s not just Siri – she’s Siri with a growing IQ, access to all the information in the world and the ability to assimilate it and synthesize it. And then, eventually, to have feelings about it.

Theodore, an obviously well-paid scribe at a company called Beautiful Handwritten Letters.com, has no luck with the ladies – even when they’re practically drawing him illustrations of the human reproductive act. He’s bereft after a break-up, convinced he’s doomed to a life of solitude.

Then he installs Samantha and she not only organizes his life – she gets him, in a way that no one ever has gotten him. And she needs him as well, to have an existence that somehow transcends the physical boundary separating them.

That, indeed, is the whole story of this film: A man falls in love with an OS, who could potentially be the perfect girlfriend (except for that one small drawback). And it happens at a moment in the future in which every other kind of relationship seems so fraught with the unpredictability of emotion that the steady keel Samantha provides feels welcome and loving.

Or is it that she doesn’t need that much from him emotionally, which is apparently a problem he has, anyway? But if she has consciousness and feelings, is she truly artificial intelligence?

Jonze’s wicked satire on relationships seduces us into – if only momentarily – buying into Theodore’s happiness. He feels a genuine connection with this voice; is that any less real than many of the social-media connections we make every day? It may still be too soon for society to accept the idea, though some of his friends are supportive.

But every relationship inevitably must bare its weaknesses, before the participants can know whether they’re strong enough to overcome them. That’s exactly what Jonze does, with this relationship building to that moment when one partner says, “It’s not you. It’s me,” and the other partner says, “You’re right. It is you.”

Still, this film works wonderfully strange changes on the tropes of the romantic comedy where the pair come from different worlds. Jonze does it all with a straight face, and he’s got an astonishing palette to work with using the visage of Joaquin Phoenix.

Phoenix is such a chameleonic presence that this hardly seems like the same actor who bulled his way through last year’s “The Master” or the upcoming “The Immigrant.” If Theo is anything, he’s passive-aggressive, when he’s not just passive. It may be why he writes such movingly specific letters at work. He can invest in the lives of others, in ways he can’t invest in his own.

Johannson is never seen, but you certainly do feel her. She gives real weight to Samantha, a character who is more than a concept or a bit of coding. Perhaps there’s a crossover sequel that links this to “The Terminator,” when this machine eventually takes over the world.

“Her” is a daring piece of work, one that may ultimately go on too long, but which has the courage of its convictions. It turns what could have been a one-joke movie into something much deeper and more emotionally thoughtful.

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