Spike Jonze’s “her” is funny, quirky, and unlike most movies I have seen. It is a film of unbridled empathy, warmth, and emotion. The fact that it contains such warmth and empathy while telling the story of a man in love with his talking operating system is a minor miracle of cinematic storytelling.
The film’s main character is a man named Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix). He is in the midst of a divorce, and though he writes beautiful letters for people that help them communicate their emotions to others, he has very few people to whom he can communicate his own emotions. This changes when he buys a new computer with an artificially intelligent operating system named Samantha (Scarlett Johansson, in a vocal only performance). Twombly bonds with the effervescent Samantha, and he begins to connect with her. Gradually, they become a romantic couple.
A man in love with a computer is an object of derision, as seen on the two-part season finale of “Community’s” 5thseason. But “her” is not about arguing for sexual relations between humans and machines. Instead, it uses that as a springboard to talk about relationships and the magic of connecting with people. It’s a familiar story, but the science fiction style premise elevates this story and makes it stand out more. It presents the arguments against Twombly’s relationship with Samantha – namely that she is a computer – but it doesn’t linger on them in an unseemly way. The film actually devotes time to what would want to make these two come together, and why they would draw such joy from this relationship.
Jonze’s Oscar-winning screenplay explores issues of relationships and how to connect with a quixotic mixture of humor, melancholy, and empathy. It is also brought to heartfelt life by his actors. Joaquin Phoenix portrays Twombly, and his performance is one of the most human that I have seen an actor give. It’s honest, it’s empathetic, and he makes you care deeply for Twombly while not being afraid to show his flaws. Amy Adams plays his best friend, and she too gives a heartfelt performance filled with the best type of emotion. Rooney Mara also performs well as Twombly’s ex-wife, and it is she who presents the best arguments against Twombly in a lunch scene where they sign their divorce papers. (Side note: this is the second scene where she sits down with the lead male character of a film and tells him off. The first scene was in “The Social Network.” The lily white Mara has been cast as Tiger Lily in the new Peter Pan movie, and I hope she gets to yell at Peter Pan over a dinner the lost boys made up with their minds.)
Scarlett Johansson got a lot of attention for her performance as Samantha, which is given entirely through her voice. Voice actors for cartoons have been doing work like this for years, but with less dramatic material. While it might have been interesting to see a female voice actor tackle the role, Johansson really nails the character. She plays her as being open to life in a way that few people are, and she also manages to communicate Samantha's insecurities well to the audience. It’s a very good performance, and it adds immeasurably to the film.
While the film is excellent, it is not perfect. It drags on a bit, especially in the second half. It has sections that can be uninteresting or not add much more than we already know. All the same, when I saw this movie for the first time in December of last year, I was moved. It presented the melancholic yet witty tale of a kind man who cannot bear the idea of a relationship’s joyful initial beginnings and connections ending, and has to keep chasing them in new relationships. I recognized the film’s flaws, but the sum of its parts more than made up for them. Watching this movie, I was reminded of something television auteur Norman Lear likes to say. He says that there are two types of people in this world, the drys and the wets. Drys are brittle, almost unemotional, and they do not hug well. Wets are passionate, warm, and hug well. If movies were divided into those categories, “her” would clearly be in the wet pile.