‘Her’ spins tale of not-quite-surreal romance


By Shawn Cooke / Staff Writer


Directed by: Spike Jonze

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson

Grade: A

“Man falls in love with Siri” might sound like an idea from a scrapped “South Park” episode, but ignore any reservations about the premise: “Her” transcends its superficial absurdity to become the most thoughtful, moving and imaginative major studio release of 2013 (and now a Golden Globe winner for Best Screenplay).

Director Spike Jonze (“Adaptation,” “Where the Wild Things Are”) has always had a penchant for packaging the surreal into a cinematic universe that is not only totally believable but always feels bracingly immediate. Aside from the vibrant wardrobes and interior designs, futuristic Los Angeles (which was created by blending shots of modern Los Angeles with shots of Shanghai) bears few aesthetic differences to the modern city. Although “Her” may be set in a plausible and not-so-distant future, it has just as much to say about the current state of relationships and personal disconnect.  

In the future according to “Her,” human connection is in a perilous place. People entrust professionals to pen even the most personal of messages, including love letters, birthday wishes and notes to their children. One such letter-writer, Theodore Twombly (a loveably pathetic Joaquin Phoenix), struggles with the very affection that he so eloquently expresses for others.

Separated from his stone-cold wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), Twombly constantly seeks ways to fill the void of losing “someone to share his life with.” After an attempt to find pleasure through a pseudo-Chat Roulette service for single insomniacs goes (hilariously) wrong, he stumbles on a far more unorthodox companion: his operating system, “Samantha” (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).

Samantha is more patient, understanding, quick-witted and compassionate than any human being could ever dream to be. Jonze hardly seems to want Samantha to come across as eerie or unsettling, despite her larger-than-life ability to process data, read information and solve abstract physics problems. Throughout the film, there’s an underlying sense that Samantha and the other operating systems are growing to be far more powerful than they were intended, but it doesn’t dominate the thematic tract of the movie.

That Jonze doesn’t primarily treat “Her” as a vehicle to condemn technology and the corporate titans associated with it is especially impressive, given how easy it could have been to bludgeon viewers over the head with cautionary messages. Jonze is far more concerned with the human than the machine, and it makes “Her” a truly transcendental film.     

Buoyed by Phoenix and Johansson’s charming chemistry, the central relationship takes only a few minutes to feel as natural as any other in the film, except for the fact that every exchange bears the weight of the world. Jonze has crafted more than a simple story of a man falling in love with a machine: It is a story of a man expanding his worldview and acquiring a better understanding of how to interact with the most important people in his life. 

Although Twombly’s most reliable friend Amy (Amy Adams) aims to fill the tiresome “best friend” trope of romantic comedy, she functions on a far more vital level in “Her.” Struggling with relationship issues of her own, she encourages Twombly to pursue joy in the world no matter what the cost — or physical form. His estranged wife shows far less understanding.

“You always wanted to have a wife without the challenges of actually dealing with anything real,” she fires at Twombly when she learns that he’s dating an operating system. Yet through most of the movie and his relationship with Samantha, he continuously puts off signing divorce papers to end his failed marriage. “Her” is just as much a meditation on loss and moving forward in life. Theodore is hesitant to abandon the stability and certainty of marriage   — even when the mutual passion is depleted. Though his affections seem fully invested in Samantha, the lack of physical connection still crafts a barrier.

Samantha develops a wide array of emotions and desires at an alarming rate. As she grows closer to Theodore, she longs for a physical form — to walk alongside him, to scratch her back. Subtly, Jonze wants us to consider the ongoing modern dissatisfaction with appearance and functionality. What makes Samantha’s desires any different from those of an unattractive woman who dreams of beauty? Or a disabled girl who longs for the ability to walk?

Sure, the sheer ambition of “Her” may be what makes it most infatuating at first (then again, “John Carter” was ambitious, too). But much like Samantha, it’s the fusion of heart and perception that truly makes “Her” one for the ages.