Silver Screen: Her ***1/2
2013 was the year of movies about being by yourself. Sandra Bullock drifted alone in space in Gravity, Robert Redford’s solo sailing trip turned disastrous in All Is Lost, and Mark Wahlberg was cut off from his SEAL team and air support in Lone Survivor. What distinguishes the main character’s solitude in Spike Jonze’s Her is that it is largely self-imposed and takes place among crowds of people.
Her marks the first time Jonze has directed a movie from an original screenplay, although its high concept sounds a bit like something cooked up by his frequent collaborator, Charlie Kaufman. Set in the near future, the film follows the doomed romance between Ethan (Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely introvert reeling from a divorce, and his sentient computer operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). It’s an intriguing premise that Jonze is able to render surprisingly plausible, at least during the early going, although eventually the central metaphor collapses on itself; the more time Jonze spends dealing with the practical plot mechanics of artificial intelligence, the more the emotions become unrelatable and abstracted.
One of Kaufman’s great strengths is his ability to transcend gimmickry and smoothly integrate often bizarre concepts into a narrative. Jonze threatens to tip too far into weirdness early by introducing one too many big ideas. Heartsick Ethan, a struggling former L.A. Weekly writer, now works for a company that pens other people’s love notes. It’s at once a little too on-the-nose— we get it, he can mimic the gestures of love without experiencing the real connection— and also a concept that probably needs its own movie.
Ethan still pines for his ex-wife (Rooney Mara), a gloomy fellow writer cajoling him to sign divorce papers and make their separation official. In public he surrounds himself in a cocoon of technology, listening to music on his earbuds and scrolling through the internet on his phone, and at home he loses himself in videogames. That changes when he buys a new artificially intelligent operating system designed to tailor itself to the user then evolve based on previous experiences. The voice that comes from his computer calls itself Samantha, and she’s far sassier and more idiosyncratic than Apple’s Siri. Ethan is enchanted with her almost immediately. Why wouldn’t he be? She’s been customized to appeal to him and serve at his pleasure.
Ethan spends so much time with Samantha in his ear that she becomes his most significant relationship. By default, he is hers. They’re essentially alone on an island together, and so eventually they do what any two people stuck on an island together inevitably will do, at least based on the logic of lots of old jokes and the movie Blue Lagoon: They have sex. The next morning they confess their feelings for one another, and not long after Ethan is openly claiming Samantha as his girlfriend. They even go on a double date with his boss (Chris Pratt) and his more corporeal mate.
Jonze makes this transition with surprising fluidity, although I would argue he does it by cheating a bit. Casting Johansson as the voice inherently stacks in the deck in his favor. It’s much easier to identify with Ethan because the voice he falls in love with is in no way abstract to us. It’s Scarlett Johansson, who has a lovely voice indeed. At this point the sound of Johansson’s sultry purr is Pavlov’s bell for heterosexual male moviegoers. It’s familiar. When she speaks, we picture her. We don’t have to make that conceptual leap and imagine a mind without a body.
Cheating or no, Jonze makes Samantha feel real, or as real as she’s supposed to be, and in doing so he raises a lot of interesting questions about the ways in which technology has become inexorably intertwined with our own emotional lives, as well as the ways in which that technology allows us to opt out of a broader community to live in our own private worlds.
The parts of Her are more interesting than the sum total. Jonze captures the rhythms of a romantic relationship, both in the impressively naturalistic snippets of flashback to Ethan's time with his ex-wife and even during the decidedly unnatural context of his courtship with his operating system. The utopian futurism is a pleasant change from the more bleak (and probably more plausible) doomsday prognostications of the average blockbuster, and some of the cultural details of that near future are keenly observed and just skewed enough to put a fresh perspective on the fashions of the day. Yet despite all this, Her runs out of gas during its second half when the metaphor becomes more literal and significantly less interesting. For most of the last hour I kept anxiously glancing at my phone to check the time— a good sign for Jonze's thesis, but not for his movie.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.