Saturday, February 1, 2014


Director: Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams

Upon checking Spike Jonze’s filmography, I somewhat shamefully realized that the only other feature film of his I’ve seen is Being John Malkovich.  Now I rather love Being John Malkovich, but the heaviest criticism I lay before it is that it’s a rather cold film.  Don’t get me wrong, sometimes there’s nothing wrong with cold films (*cough*Stanley Kubrick*cough*), but Being John Malkovich THINKS it has a heart when in reality, any heart that’s there is pretty darn small.  In the near-fifteen years between Malkovich and Her, I am astonished at how much heart Jonze has managed to grow into.  Because Her is a film absolutely overflowing with heart, for acres and acres, miles and miles.  The last thing anyone would call this film is “cold.”

Theodore Twombly (Phoenix) – what a great character name – works as a personalized letter writer for a company in the not-too-distant future.  He sees an ad for a new operating system with artificial intelligence that tailors itself for your own personal life and, on a whim, he purchases it.  Upon installing it, the OS announces its name is Samantha (Johansson), and Theodore realizes that this artificial intelligence is the real deal.  He and Samantha quickly become very close, developing a deep emotional bond that soon turns into a romantic relationship.  This isn’t an anomaly; Theodore’s close friend Amy (Adams) installed the same OS and became best friends with hers.  Theodore and Samantha go through all the normal relationship ups and downs, but can a relationship with an OS really stand the test of time?

Like his typical work, there are lots of little futuristic twists and oddities and quirks in Her, but unlike Being John Malkovich where the oddities ARE the film, the oddities in Her are ancillary.  Strip away the fact that Samantha is artificial intelligence, and what you really have in Her is a relationship film.  That’s what it is, pure and simple.  Theodore is broken and damaged following a divorce from a woman he deeply loved, and with Samantha, he finds the courage to open up to someone new.  He goes through all the various explorations of this, to hesitating and pulling back when things get really serious, to pain when he thinks that he is being left once more, to getting a bit too petty over silly things.  Samantha isn’t perfect, either; she is overzealous on occasion, she needs a bit of coddling every now and then, and as she grows as a “person,” (OK, as an AI OS) she changes and wonders about the relationship just as much as Theodore.  This, to me, is what makes Her so utterly brilliant.  Jonze takes something that, on first whisper, sounds utterly absurd, and makes you, as an audience, invest every last emotion you have into this relationship.  The relationship is real and honest and flawed and beautiful, and so help me if it didn’t reduce me to tears on more than one occasion.  I wouldn’t hesitate for a second putting Her up along with some of the great cinematic romances of all time, not least of all because the brutal honesty with which it is portrayed is far more palatable to me than most silly fairytale romcom “romances.”  (and infinitely more enjoyable than Jack and Rose.)

When I’ve mentioned Her in conversation with my real life friends and acquaintances, most of them responded with some variation of “that movie sounds so weird, he falls in love with his COMPUTER wtf?”  One of the things I loved about the movie, though, is that Jonze removes pretty much every negative connotation about “falling in love with your computer” in his near-future world.  Theodore hesitatingly starts telling people that his girlfriend is an OS and no one bats an eye.  “Cool, bring her along!” they say.  There is no stigma about “dating your OS” in Her, and while that’s quirky, it’s also brilliant.  It’s part of Jonze’s MO to get you to buy into the concept, so he removes the barriers.  In fact, the one character in the film (other than Theodore himself) who shudders at the idea of Theodore dating Samantha is Theodore’s ex-wife, and frankly, don’t we expect that?  Wouldn’t we automatically anticipate our exes to be judgmental of the new people in our lives? 

Apart from the pure shot of emotion that Her serves up on a glorious platter, I adored the production design.  The film is set in the future, but it’s a recognizable future.  This isn’t a sterile, silver-clad, no-collar jumpsuit sort of future.  This is a “in ten years’ time” sort of future.  A “this is where we’re on track to turn into sooner than you think” sort of future.  Twombly’s job – writing personalized letters for people who are too busy to write themselves – is an interesting extrapolation of our current culture.  Theodore lives in Los Angeles, and the film was shot there, but carefully.  Additional scenes were shot in Shanghai, and the blending of current LA with a feeling of foreign oddity (signs are not hidden, so occasionally there is a neon sign in Chinese in the background) makes the city seem recognizable and completely strange, all at once.  There is a softness to the future in Her that is reflected in the architecture, all curves and pods and clean without feeling sterile.  The softness nicely underscores the heart of the film, the focus on the strong connection between these two people (because really, Samantha has the heart of a person). 

And god help me, I loved the sets and costume designs.  Everything is flushed in reds, oranges, yellows, and creams.  Nearly every scene has some swath of the red-orange hue that is the film’s trademark, a color which yet again feels warm and soft and rife with emotion.  All the characters are dressed as the natural progression of today’s hipster designs.  There are high waisted wool and cotton pants, oversized cardigans, and leather shoes.  Because we see Theodore the most we begin to assume that this is his personal aesthetic, but when we do occasionally see other human characters, they are dressed nearly identically.  It’s a great prediction of what we might be wearing in ten years; no denim, few belts, but still the same type of silhouette.

Her is a wonderful little futuristic sci-fi romance.  What an odd combination, but because Jonze focuses first and foremost on the “romance” part of that description, the film has an emotional anchor that positively bleeds with truth.  This is Jonze injecting his typical quirkiness in a smart way, around the edges of a story that we can all relate too. 

Even if it is “guy falls in love with his computer” movie.

Arbitrary Rating: 9.5/10. Exactly the sort of movie I love.


  1. Good review. I liked this one quite a bit myself. In my recent review I compared the relationship in this film to that from the film Harold and Maude - unlikely, yet still believably touching.

    By the way, Being John Malkovich was written by Charlie Kaufman; Jonze just directed. Her was both written and directed by Jonze. And the Jonze/Kaufman film Adaptation (2002) is very much worth your time.

    1. Adaptation is definitely on my to-watch list - heck, it's in The Book. Just haven't quite made my way around to it yet.