One doesn’t really think “realistic” with Spike Jonze films. Consider: Being John Malkovich, Where the Wild Things Are (I’m going to ignore Bad Grandpa). Instead, Malkovich and Where the Wild Things Are have some realistic elements, but also include an intense fantasy aspect. So I was taken aback when Her struck me as so intensely realistic.
Of course, there is a fantasy element in the sci-fi angle. We are some years into the future, where a souped up version of Siri is introduced, and human/computer relationships take a massive step forward into the more complex and awkward.
It’s unclear how far into the future the story resides – perhaps 30 years. There are the marks of the future, some technological, others aesthetic, but mostly the world remains incredibly recognizable. Jonze centers us on Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix sporting an unfortunate retro-80’s mustache. Theodore is stinging from an impending divorce with his wife, played by Rooney Mara. He’s become introverted and somber, and his friends are concerned he’s not dealing with his emotions. Instead he pours emotion into his work, where he “hand writes” letters for other people, imagining their emotions and Cyrano de Bergerac-ing letters of love, regret, or friendship. He has a talent for empathy, or perhaps displacement. He is able to imagine or reroute his own feelings to ghost write personal letters for others.
His monotonous, detached life changes when he installs a new OS on his computer. As he runs through the options, he chooses a female voice, and “Samantha” is born.
From here Jonze offers a believable and insightful narrative of falling in love, and then that love falling apart as one grows into new territory. Theodore is the poster child for the act of falling in love, which often requires both displacement and empathy to get off the ground. He builds a picture of who Samantha is, sharing with her all of the things about the world he loves. Initially, as a newborn AI, Samantha is exactly the woman Theodore wants her to be; but as she develops (by leaps and bounds thanks to the speed of computer processes and the ability to connect with other computers all over the world), she stops being his dream woman, and complications ensue.
It is no surprise that a film like this is sold on the believably of the leads. Here, Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson, manage to work around tremendous restraints to infuse the story with life and empathy. Scarlett Johansson, as the voice of Samantha, is showing mastery of a level of voice acting we don’t often get anymore. She has no animated counterpart. She’s akin to radio actors, but in an era of “naturalism” in acting. Johansson works well to balance the shifting tensions of Samantha and to do so without any physical form. Her voice evokes the personhood of Samantha so that the audience can take the relationship with Theodore seriously, rather than as a comic absurdity. Though this has been billed as a romantic comedy and does have some of the tropes, it bucks hard at the genre’s confines. The evolution of Samantha as she acquires self-knowledge and emotional maturity gives a startlingly feasible prediction of how an AI might actually gain sentience. Likewise, her sentience doesn’t morph the film into Terminator or The Matrix. Instead, the focus remains on Theodore and how he is changed by this relationship with Samantha. It’s a personal story, even as it dives into the more philosophical, speculative aspects of the science fiction.
The cinematography is a lovely Instagram-esque pastel and desaturation. The characters – not just Theodore and Samantha, but those played by Chris Pratt, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, and others – are unique and yet recognizable. Jonze, who often is too quirky for many, balances the eccentric with the universal, visually, narratively, and within the characters. There is a certain hipster appeal to it. Highly recommended, especially for fans of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Where the Wild Things Are.