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As Amy Adams’ character in Spike Jonze’s Her poignantly points out towards the middle of the film, love is in many ways socially-accepted insanity. It changes the way we think, feel and act in every situation, it drives us to make illogical and irrational choices, and when love is in trouble there is nothing more painful. And yet, we leap at it every chance we get. Love is a pure abstraction and constantly swirling whirlwind, and by proxy, is one of the hardest things to adapt into fiction in a meaningful and impactful way. With his latest film, however, that is exactly what Jonze has achieved.
Based on an original screenplay by Jonze, Her begins as a writer named Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), living in a future Los Angeles, struggles with loneliness in the wake of his marriage falling apart. As a distraction, he purchases a new interactive operating system technology called OS1 that allows him to create a digital consciousness that winds up calling herself Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Though she really only exists in physical form through an earpiece and a hand-sized tablet computer, the man and the operating system quickly form a bond of friendship, but it doesn’t take long before their relationship becomes something much more. As they grow, develop and change as individuals, so does the relationship and all of the strange complexities that come with it.
Given the nature of the off-beat romance at the heart of the film, both leads are tasked with a serious acting challenge – one performing most of his scenes in a room alone and the other appearing in a voice-only role – but both stars simply use that as a launching point for some of the best performances we’ve seen in their careers. In bringing Theodore to life, Phoenix deftly creates a character who is certainly introverted and lonely, but never in the exaggerated Hollywood sense that we often see portrayed. It’s the twisty and complex evolution of the protagonist as he weaves through the ever-changing dynamics of his relationship with Samantha that really allows the actor to prove his talent, though. Phoenix brilliantly wears every beautiful emotion on his face, whether he’s falling deeply, madly in love, becoming distant or bored, or searching for any answer that can try and keep his life together.
Phoenix does physical work for two in the scenes where Theodore is talking with his love, but the real presence and evocativeness of Johansson’s performance makes the film’s unique premise work. More than just a sexy, gravelly voice – which the actress certainly does have – there is an incredible warmth and personality in Samantha that makes the audience really feel like she is side-by-side with Theodore on the screen. Much like Phoenix, Johansson is also given a rich and emotionally changing persona, but even without the ability to make facial expressions she is able to convey all of her feelings through tone, timing and subtext, creating a masterful vocal performance in the process.
What these performances ultimately help express in the film is rare, pure emotional honesty, and it is an extraordinary sight to behold. Just about any member of the audience who has ever been in a romantic relationship – male or female – will be able to relate to the story of Theodore and Samantha on an almost disturbing level. It’s incredibly painful to fall in and out of love with someone who, deep down, you will always care about, and the constantly morphing undercurrents and power changes that occur between the leads in Her perfectly understand and portray it.
With his script, Jonze not only crafts one of the best modern romances we’ve seen in years, but also a truly innovative, effective sci-fi world. The film takes the audience into an Earth one step beyond our own in terms of technology advancement, and it works on two completely different levels. The futuristic advancements not only help establish a setting where a sentient operating system seems like it could be a reality, but they also add a bit of flair and fun to the story. In addition to having a job at a company that produces “beautiful handwritten letters” (which are actually not handwritten, but vocally inputted into a computer), Theodore is also a gamer, which allows Jonze to create a whole new kind of holographic, fully interactive video game system (which also happens to deliver some of the movie’s funniest moments). Her doesn’t have flying cars zooming around or characters jetting off to other planets, but what it does have is a lightly-touched, beautiful view of the future.
Perhaps it’s just because of the association made between Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman due to their collaborations on both Being John Malkovich and Adaptation., but while watching Her I couldn’t help but be reminded of 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which was the last time I felt so incredibly moved by a piece of romantic filmmaking. The movie is at times funny, brutal, exciting, and raw, and with a special splash of science-fiction it delivers an emotionally honest, deep look at what it means and how it feels to be in love.