The clue is in the title. At face value, it’s expected that Her, the film where Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his computer, be a commentary on isolation and self-discovery, which it is, but not from the perspective one imagines it would be. Always interesting and exceptionally crafted, Her doesn’t always succeed in telling a compelling story about an operating system, but when it does it’s easy to understand the praise that’s been lavished upon it.
The movie’s premise could easily go off-the-rails in the wrong hands. Spike Jonze, best known for fanciful, off-kilter work like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, makes the film work by keeping it grounded. This is no hysterical melodrama about how we’re more interested in our smartphones than each other, man! Yes, the extras are all speaking into their phones rather than each other at all times, but at one point when Joaquin Phoenix trips, people are over to him instantly asking if he’s okay. This is a film about distance, not disconnect. In a film about relationships it’s the correct choice to keep things ‘normal’ so as to allow us to focus on the characters. The dialogue is natural, conversational. The relationship between Phoenix’s character and his operating system ‘Samantha’, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, develops at a believable pace and his character is taken seriously, treated as a real person rather than just a creep who wants to stick his dick in a laptop.
Phoenix’s performance as nebbish Theodore is probably the best aspect of the movie. The role doesn’t call for showiness like some of the performances nominated for an Oscar this year (not that showiness is inherently bad) but Phoenix has to carry a lot of this film on his shoulders, with frequent tight shots on his face and most scenes featuring him talking to someone who isn’t there and he easily sells these interactions and the range of emotions that the character is going through. Theodore is no mere sad sack either, he’s insightful, he can be funny, he is again, believable. Anyone who had alarm signs bellowing at the trailer of this man romantically twirling around with his phone doesn’t need to worry, that’s not what this is. Amy Adams does great work in a supporting role, her own experiences with relationships and operating systems adding context to the wider story and her rapport with best friend Theodore contributing to making his character not weird. As for Johansson, although she’s often maligned as an actress I feel that’s unfair. If given the same calibre of material as Jennifer Lawrence I think there’s a higher ceiling she can reach than she’s given credit for and working with Jonze is a step in the right direction. She injects the voice of Samantha with warmth, likeability and, for my money, real sympathy. Again, with the quirky premise, it would be easy to assume Samantha to be the dreaded ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’, the shallow bubbly lady who shows the shy creative type how to live, but those aspects of the character are balanced by actual character development. Though the movie opens and closes with Theodore, Samantha is in some ways the secret main character of the movie, with much of the narrative being devoted to her growth. Indeed, my main problems with the movie in some ways come from wanting more of that.
Much is made of Samantha’s changing and learning and though we see a lot of that on screen in her developing romance, most other aspects of that take place off screen. In developing the artificial intelligence angle and how the operating systems learn and grow the film occasionally touches on some interesting metaphysical concepts which, without giving too much away, become very important towards the end. Unfortunately these moments came across to me as under-developed and so their importance at the climax felt too rushed to really hang together, so I ended up leaving the theatre with a feeling of dissatisfaction. Also, again in terms of the narrative, Rooney Mara’s character, Theodore’s ex-wife, felt a little one-dimensional in comparison to other characters. Her non-flashback appearance uses her as a neurotic wrench to be thrown into the Teddy/iPhone romance, which was a little easy considering how strong the writing had been up to that point. These are quibbles with the narrative, in terms of how the story is presented everything is of the highest quality, from Jonze’s intimate, personal direction to a beautiful soundtrack by Arcade Fire (yes if you like skinny jeans and rolling your own cigarettes this should tide you over until The Grand Budapest Hotel comes out).
I don’t like assigning numbered grades to films because it usually feels arbitrary but Her really felt like a movie that could have been a 10 but just fell short at the end and knocked a number or two off. Still, it represents continued growth for Jonze as both a director and writer. That feels like such a patronising thing for Johnny 50-Page-View-Blog to say but it’s true, he’s unquestionably moving forward from his collaborations with writer Charlie Kaufmann, to writing and directing the adaptation of Where The Wild Things Are and now writing and directing an original story that feels more mature in its sensibilities. Her may not be a 100% perfect romantic movie, but it is a recommend from me and it doesn’t have a flying horse so it’s already got one up on other romantic cinema out right now.