by Philip Price
For the first hour of “Her” I couldn't decide what I was watching; I couldn't figure it out, I couldn't follow the hype. I understood the acuteness under which director Spike Jonze was operating and I could see why it was easy for the hipster crowd to so easily jump on board with the flick because our main character, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), seemed to very much be a hipster himself jumping on the latest technology and style trends with his belly button-high pants. What was perplexing me though was the way in which the film has seemed to entrance everyone else and not just those hoping to be in touch with their own spectacled intellectual, but those who aren't desperate contrarians or what you would necessarily call progressive and seem to have a balanced understanding of the value in both large and small scale filmmaking. The strange thing here is that despite “Her” having the ideals and philosophies of a small, independent film it looks magnificent, as if it were operating with a fairly large special effects budget. The ethereal atmosphere in which these characters exist, though obviously in the not too distant future, actually feels like a plausible place that we as a society might reach. I drank the Hoyte Van Hoytema cinematography in with wonder and the China serving as Los Angeles locations only re-enforced the color scheme and scope with which Jonze was able to convey the mood and minuteness of our main character. We take Theodore as a surrogate of Jonze as it is evident from the opening speech in which Theodore shuffles through his thoughts on what it must be like to share your life with the same person for half a century and that we are not only getting a love story, but an examination of love as an emotion and how it transcends everything else in our existence to ultimately become every person’s main point of focus and fulfillment. If we don't have loved ones what have we done to make this life worthwhile? If we don't have people who care about us, what will allow us to live on after we're gone? Questions we've no doubt asked ourselves plenty of times before, but “Her” looks to take them, throw in a little social commentary, and inevitably come to an epiphany not about the technology at the center of the film, but the emotion that continues to define the satisfaction of our being.
It is in the second hour of the film that I became more convinced with what people were finding so special about this feature. This waiting to see if it delivers on its praise is a difficult way to approach a film and I acknowledge that. The hype surrounding the film has been unavoidable though when you follow so many cinephiles on social media while also residing in a location that is on the final stop of the film’s release schedule. With that in mind I still attempted to take in “Her” on my own terms, hoping to catch a glimpse of the greatness that had allowed this on so many year-end lists if not at the top of them. The bottom line is that while I understand how people can be so impressed by this, it is rather insightful and gorgeous to look at, I don't think it breaks any new ground or explores territory that we haven't seen done before or to better effect. With love stories, the good ones anyway, it is important to identify with the people on screen and be able to relate to their feelings and the trials life is pulling up in front of them. With Phoenix's Theodore we can certainly understand that point in life where one is looking for that thing, whatever it may be, to overcome the last relationship one partook in that left a large part of the soul damaged and feeling inadequate in many ways. We've all been there and we recognize that is where Theodore is at when we first encounter him, but we don't necessarily see why he has such a difficult time getting out of the slump when Jonze has positioned other characters and typical romantic archetypes all around him. What I believe has allowed “Her” to stand out is the fact Jonze, as the sole creative force behind this effort, has covered these archetypes with timely blankets such as operating systems and easy to use ear pieces that serve the purpose of the best friend with the good advice and that the several montages are more artistically shot and accompanied by simple piano than a top 40 hit or that the girl next door is played by Amy Adams which, despite her wealth of talent and genuine charm, doesn't make it any less obvious that Theodore is meant to be with her. These things became clear early on, but it is easy to forgive them and look past them because of the general design of the film and the intelligent dialogue that conveys these complex thoughts of love into simple greeting card sayings that strike a chord with us. What I found special in the second hour though was the way in which things evolved and that real conflict was finally presented leading to circumstances not typical of love stories and the uncertain resolutions they carried with them.
I understand what Jonze was doing in setting up his world and his characters and this becomes increasingly relevant as we come to understand the reasons in which Theodore's relationships haven't worked out in the past and why he is probably more selfish than he would like to admit and even more so than the audience would like to believe. He seems a sweet but pensive man who knows how to relate his deep or serious thoughts in an engaging way that wouldn't necessarily alienate someone in a conversation who feels differently. Still, there is obviously some hesitance, some ill feeling in his social skills that make it easier for him to relay those emotions and thoughts when he doesn't have to stare someone in the face. When he purchases a new, more sophisticated operating system we see these qualities amplify. Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) comes to serve as something much more than a secretary or personal assistant, the role one would assume your operating system would take on, and Theodore develops a close relationship with her. While Johansson gives a fine performance in that we never actually see her and she is restricted to creating a person we essentially need to believe is on the other end of a phone only through her voice is a difficult task, but we buy into the rapport between the two and believe in their conversation, compatibility and eventual companionship. The problem I had was that I simply couldn't get past the fact that Theodore could get past the fact he was still talking to a computer and not someone on the other end of the line that would magically show up someday no matter how much he may want to believe that was what might actually happen. Where we could relate to his position in life at the given time we are introduced to him I expected him to have more restraint on where he allowed his relationship with Samantha to go no matter how fragile a state he might protest he was in when she was configured. There is a moment though, right at the end of the film, where Samantha asks Theodore to come into another room and lay with her. I saw it kind of as the ultimate test. I wanted him to say no, that it wasn't possible and that for him to move on he would need to free himself of the thought that he could feel whatever spirit she may have created for him to match her voice in his mind. He doesn't. He goes, following her like the lost puppy Olivia Wilde's character prophesied him to be. I couldn't help but feel no matter where Theodore might go from there that he still wouldn't be able to shake his inability to become so hopefully hung up on the past that he would ever see an unadulterated future.
What eventually becomes clearer and ultimately entertaining, which comes through in the more complex second half of the film, is the social commentary and philosophical thoughts Jonze implements rather than the love story aspect which seems to be what the marketing has tried to nail this down as. The moments I'll think of when I think of “Her” will be those of Theodore questioning Samantha about why she sighs in between speaking despite the fact she doesn't need oxygen or when they share a picnic with his co-worker Paul (Chris Pratt) and his girlfriend Tatiana (Laura Kai Chen) when Samantha begins talking about how she has come to terms with the fact she doesn't have a body and that she has found joy in this fact because she realizes she will never be, as we humans are, bound to a body in a certain span of time but is more free to be anywhere and everywhere simultaneously. It is this train of thought and the implications it leaves on Theodore about the true nature of their relationship that prove to be a subject worthy of further examination and ripe for some intelligently concocted revelations, but Jonze sticks not so much with how these artificial intelligent operating systems are only pushing us further apart with the conceit of bringing us closer together, but to the love story and how a relationship with a voice and that personality, with someone who can reply and get to know you through your internet activity still isn't someone you can spend the rest of your life with. More power to him, but it isn't a surprise when (spoiler) it doesn't work out and Samantha eventually comes to realize she has endless possibilities in what she can learn, do and eventually become so there is no need for her to be tethered down to this one person. I understand Samantha is a tool to teach Theodore why his relationship with his ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) failed and that these truths about himself are more obvious when he doesn't have a physical presence to blame, but the more involving emotions for me were how someone could become so perplexed by technology that they buy into it as a natural extension of themselves. I appreciate Jonze not taking this the obvious route of having Samantha malfunction or her turn into a master manipulator that wants to take over the world and I appreciate the restraint he shows in not making this all about technology destroying our world, but instead using it as a very simple way of showing how some of us deal with a broken heart. It is an interesting side of a love story that is done with slick, inventive techniques yet the impact it left on me was almost non-existent. I look forward to watching the film again to see if I can recover whatever it is I may be missing, but for now it is a film that left me more inquisitive than emotionally affected.