What is love? What are the means and conditions that qualify a true romance? Spike Jonze has always pondered on these questions in his films, depicting characters trying to discover their endearment as well as themselves. her approaches this subject even more directly than Jonze’s past work, asking what can really apply as love. With material this deep, some moviegoers might be surprised that the premise of her is “a man falls in love with his operating system.” But Jonze does not use the subject for cheap and easy laughs, instead providing an existential view of romance. In fact, her is the best picture Jonze has done to date and the grandest vision the filmmaker has had.
Taking place in an unspecified date in the near future, her centers on Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), who works for beautifulhandwrittenletters.com, a site that scribes letters for loved ones and individuals. Theodore is efficient and profound at his job (a fellow coworker describes him as “part man, part woman”), emphasized by Jonze in the opening scene, when Theodore dictates a beautifully resolute letter, filmed in a close-up shot to show the truthfulness of Phoenix’s facial expressions. Yet Theodore does not take any pleasure in his work. His wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) has left him and though she wishes for a divorce Theodore is still in love with her. He’s emotionally unstable and cannot hold his grief from others; a blind date with a woman played by Olivia Wilde goes wrong as Theodore admits to her he does not see a future between them. Theodore’s best friend Amy (Amy Adams) has the same problem: she is currently working on a documentary that’s going nowhere and her husband Charles (Matt Letscher) seems apart from her. Theodore’s life moves in no direction, as his pleasure mostly results in video games or listening to phone sex lines (which features a cameo by Kristen Wiig).
Theodore soon discovers change as he buys a new operating system, which has artificial intelligence. After installing the software, he is greeted by an A. I. voice (Scarlett Johansson), who quickly names herself Samantha. Samantha is chirpy and charming, whose upbeat personality and multifaceted nature quickly appeals to Theodore. After both reveal to each other their innermost thoughts and feelings, they undergo a deep affair.
With its bizarre comic devices and wide and diverse variety of characters, her bears the stamp of Jonze collaborator Charlie Kaufman. While Jonze wrote the screenplay himself, her shares Kaufman’s creative ambition and melancholic and wry tone in pictures such as Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. But her feels different from the Kaufman brand, perhaps a bit more hopeful at parts and worldly infused with its commentary on future society; people dress in high and uptight pants, wear ear buds, and watch handheld monitors (Jonze also manages to emphasize the similarity of Los Angeles of the future to today; in a stunning tracking shot, the director reveals the smog filled sky and organized structure of the city). Though Jonze had been developing the concept of her before Apple had released Siri, the director provides commentary on our reliance on technology, whether it helps us grow as people or hinders our personal development.
The spirit of her, though, is the relationship between Theodore and Samantha. Jonze poses many philosophical questions about the couple: is Theodore only doting on Samantha because of his repressed emotions? Are Samantha’s actions a result of programming or true love? Can a romance between a man and machine really be maintained? Whatever the case, Jonze keeps all seriousness with his material, even in the most intimate of moments; a sex scene between Theodore and Samantha (I will not spoil the logistics) might sound like a gag from a raunchy comedy but there’s a whole level of emotion in there that not a single person in the theater I attended laughed or even snickered. It takes a professional filmmaker to handle such weighty material without succumbing to weaker instincts and Jonze fits that bill. her exemplifies Jonze’s attentiveness as a director and writer with its deep intricacy and complex themes.
The cast of her also deserves much praise. Joaquin Phoenix is perfect for the part of Theodore. Like Freddy Quell in The Master, Theodore is a lost soul searching for honest and truth, which may be built in the persona Phoenix has developed in his acting skills. Scarlet Johansson may only be giving a voiceover, but her role as Samantha seems more poignant than most characters in other films of 2013. She provides the warmth of Samantha, making the operating system feel not like a robot but a real person.
Much like what A. I. Artificial Intelligence did over a decade ago, her contemplates on the ability for machinery to love. Spike Jonze has continually proven himself to be a director of master class and he delivers the most thought-provoking picture of 2013.