It is at times difficult to think of what Spike Jonze’s creative voice actually entails. You wouldn’t necessarily expect this to be true, but looking at (for example) his first three feature directorial efforts, which were in many ways dominated by two writers. Adaptation and Being John Malkovich felt singularly like Charlie Kaufman films, and Where the Wild Things Are of course has the specter of Maurice Sendak floating over it. We know the traits of a Spike Jonze project; there are repeated motifs present in much of his work, dating back to his time as a cutting edge music video director. But the majority of these traits tend to be visual; heightened style, quirkiness and a sort of abstraction from the norm without calling attention to itself are hallmarks of what we’ve come to expect, but it doesn’t automatically give us a window into his personal narrative proclivities. Her is significant in this vein, as it is the first feature he wrote by himself from whole cloth, giving us an even better sense of what makes him tick.
The scene is set in a future Los Angeles where technology has continued to move forward. But this isn’t the sort of Minority Report future; it is not only not a dystopia, but it’s also not particularly brazen in its design. The future of Her is probably best described as an enhanced present, where phones have been enhanced with talking operating systems (super Siris, if you will) who communicate through an earpiece. Our protagonist is Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), a man working for a company that writes and dictates hand-written letters (actually created by computers), the perfect sort of boutique-y service that would exist in a society that no longer has much need for penmanship. Desperately alone and in the middle of divorce proceedings, Theodore decides on a whim to buy a new operating system purported to be a true artificial intelligence. The AI refers to itself as Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), a conversational companion that begins to evolve into something more complex as it gets to know its host.
It’s an arresting concept, the sort of uncanny valley we often dread when thinking about the future potential of technology as it continues to be refined. While there is some initial reticence toward the idea, Jonze makes it clear that this is the kind of world where an interactive operating system would be societally acceptable, perhaps on a small scale. As Theodore and Samantha continue to evolve their relationship, it becomes clear that Jonze is operating on more than even two levels. There’s the obvious, which is a story about a man trying to get over his estranged wife (Rooney Mara) using any means possible, retreating into his own ego by dating something that isn’t actually a woman, and is (at the beginning at least) specifically tailored to him. That gives it a sort of post-modern Weird Science vibe, but there’s more to Her than that. It’s also an exploration of the internet age as such, specifically the way it tends to erode face to face human interaction. Theodore’s job reinforces this; the fact that he actually writes the letters to these people is the extra step beyond simply using a computer program to simulate handwriting. There are constant scenes throughout the film of Theodore roaming LA talking to Samantha, giving the outward appearance that he is talking to himself. But this isn’t even remotely strange to the denizens of the city, in part because they too are doing the same thing. It’s a striking image of a world where everyone is constantly communicating but never actually talking to each other. It’s hyper-communicative isolation.
This is what makes Theodore’s interactions with actual flesh and blood humans so interesting. The film is ostensibly about his relationship with Samantha, but in some ways that whole aspect of the film is just noise. It really comes to life when he goes over to his friend Amy (Amy Adams) for advice. Or has a date with a woman (Olivia Wilde) who clearly has her own commitment issues. Or meets with his ex-wife to finalize their divorce. These scenes hum with electricity, in part because Theodore doesn’t necessarily have Samantha to rely on as a safety net, forcing him to confront his feelings directly without a level of distance. It is true that you feel there is genuine emotion between Theodore and Samantha, thanks almost entirely due to the work of Phoenix and Johansson, but that distance is always there. It always feels fleeting, no matter how profound the individual scenes or moments may be. It’s a remarkable gambit that Jonze has managed to pull off, a relationship movie where the relationship itself is both the most vital and least vital aspect of it depending on what angle you take on what is considered the most important thing for Theodore. And that shifts from moment to moment.
It helps, of course, that Joaquin Phoenix is his cipher. Phoenix shed the majority of the baggage he collected during his I’m Still Here experiment with his, well, masterful work in The Master, and he continues that stellar run in this film. The movie would collapse in on itself if you don’t believe that Theodore has developed a tangible connection to a voice, and Phoenix is more than up to the task. Individual moments within his courtship and eventual fully blossomed love is on the same level as the genuine love you see in films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Almost Famous, the sort of transcendent romance that you remember for years. Johansson is also excellent; it’s ironic in a way that arguably the best performance of a woman who is so well known for her physical characteristics is the one where she is never actually on screen, but her voice work is just as necessary to believe there is something real to the relationship, and the subtle verbal tics she uses are mightily effective. It’s even more impressive when you consider Johansson wasn’t Jonze’s first choice for the role, which was actually recorded on set by Samantha Morton, and then overdubbed by Johansson. She had to create her side of a deep emotional connection essentially in an ADR booth, which is something that doesn’t even occur to you while watching the film. It’s the sort of work similar to Andy Serkis from Rise of the Planet of the Apes where you know it deserves praise and award consideration but likely won’t get it due to the unique nature of the role.
Jonze’s sense of camera and production design remains top-notch; his LA (actually shot in Shanghai) is both evocative and cozy, and his implementation of new technology without tipping over into the garish is inspired. But it’s the character’s he’s managed to create that really make Her linger in the mind. This is a film with so much going on and so many layers that is will continue to bloom with many repeat viewings. Its surface pleasures are numerous, but they belie its considerable depth. Jonze has proven himself both as an auteur and a writer now, and has given us one of the very best films of the year.