Spike Jonze’s Her is a frustrating film. It asks of the viewer some incredibly deep and thoughtful questions about the nature of our romantic relationships, how we keep our “true” selves guarded, and how we learn to trust others on a more profound level. Like all of Jonze’s work, it feels very personal and manages to make even the most ridiculous circumstances (and characters) human and relatable. The frustration comes in when you realize that Jonze is only interested in raising these questions, rather than truly confronting them.
Theodore Twombly (beautifully portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix) is a depressed, introverted individual living in a near-future Los Angeles. He works for a company called “Beautifulhandwrittenletters.com”, writing deeply personal letters to total strangers on behalf of their loved ones. It’s the sort of quirky, wearing its metaphor on its sleeve plot device you tend to find in a Spike Jonze film – Theodore is deeply insightful and sensitive, but far better at applying his insights to other people’s lives than his own (like a lot of us). Theodore is going through a difficult divorce from his childhood sweetheart and living a dreary, boring existence when he happens upon ads for a new, artificially intelligent operating system for his computer. He tries out the OS (voiced by Scarlett Johansen), and finds it to be far more complex, engaging and human than he ever anticipated.
If you’ve seen the trailer for the film, you know how this goes: Theo and Samantha fall in love, despite his being a physical human and her being no more than, essentially, a disembodied voice (they stay together and go on dates via an earpiece and a futuristic smartphone). Theo’s closest friend Amy also has a deeply personal relationship with her sentient OS, though they’re just friends. Some people think the concept of Theo having a romantic relationship with a computer program is weird and “not real”; others entirely respect and accept this new, modern evolution of the relationship. There’s a metaphor in there for how online relationships were viewed in the advent of the internet, though that doesn’t seem to be Jonze’s main focus.
Jonze’s real focus seems to be on how people are forced to confront themselves in a relationship, and how they deal with that level of exposure and having to trust another person (or OS). Theo is uncomfortable opening himself up, as we see in flashbacks sprinkled throughout the film to his marriage. He finds it incredibly difficult to always place his full faith in Samantha, never being sure if he can trust her feelings for him, if what they have is “real”, etc. He tends to take his frustrations out on her passive-aggressively. Samantha is an ultra-intelligent AI, after all, and how she thinks and “lives” is so vastly different from Theo that it becomes increasingly difficult for him to have faith in her feelings. When she forms a friendship with a male AI, who she says helps her to understand how she’s changing, Theo is understandably jealous despite her reassurances. None of this is unfamiliar territory for anyone that’s ever been in a serious, long-term relationship. At some point you have to take the other persons feelings on faith. You choose to trust them because they haven’t let you down so far. You give yourself to them because you can’t bear not to. But it’s incredibly difficult, because in doing so you open yourself to the possibility – even the certainty – of pain. Rejection. Loneliness made worse by the memory of not being alone. Jonze uses Samantha, and the alienness of her thinking, as a deceptively simple metaphor for this process of learning to trust another person, as well as yourself. Samantha’s “alienness” is obvious, but isn’t any other person “alien” in some ways? We don’t ever truly know what someone else is thinking. Every relationship comes down to trust, eventually.
Joaquin Phoenix is fantastic in the lead role. With everything from his carefully measured appearance to his body language and the way that he walks and laughs, he absolutely becomes Theodore Twombly. It’s the sort of chameleon-like performance you expect from a Daniel Day-Lewis. He’s sad, but has a sense of humor; he’s kind of nerdy, but not to the point of caricature. He’s not an entirely tragic figure, but he’s not comic relief. It’s a very nuanced performance, and he completely sells the reality of their relationship with his more relaxed, natural body language when he’s alone at home talking to Samantha, or his goofy laugh when she catches him by surprise with a joke, as opposed to his very guarded demeanor in public or at work. Scarlett Johansen does an equally great job as the voice of Samantha. Her naturally husky, smoky voice adds a feeling of depth to a disembodied voice, giving her a real, almost physical presence (the sound editing – something I’ve never noticed in a movie before – also helps with this, as Samantha’s voice envelops the viewer as it does Theo). She does a great job of emoting and conveying Samantha’s confusion when they argue, as well. All in all it’s a beautifully acted film, with the same captivating set pieces you expect from a Spike Jonze film. His portrayal of the futuristic LA as Theodore walks through it, looming behind him and around him like a great, gray wall, always just out of reach, really helps sell Theodore’s sense of isolation (although it’s perhaps a tad heavy handed).
What makes Her such a frustrating experience to watch is that despite raising these questions, and portraying what is essentially a very typical relationship in a lot of ways, Jonze allows his film to become too focused on the more sci-fi aspects of the film as it progresses. Samantha begins forming relationships with other people and AIs through social networking, ultimately revealing that she’s in love with, literally, hundreds of people across the world. She doesn’t see this as cheating – to her, this is simply a normal progression of her growth. But there’s no real metaphor for this in human behavior that holds up, and thus it becomes an entirely science fiction scenario, a sort of “what if” that the rest of the movie didn’t seem focused on (one might argue that Theo’s anger is a form of “slut shaming”, but I would disagree as this argument circumvents the more important questions of trust and commitment). Worse, towards the end of the film, after raising all these questions and bringing emotions to a pitch and seemingly heading towards some sort of climax, the film takes a copout ending: all the AI’s, including Samantha, are simply leaving, evolving to some vaguely defined higher plane of consciousness of some sort. There’s no real resolution to their relationship. I don’t expect answers to the philosophical questions raised about relationships, as thinking and conversing about these things is of course part of the fun, but there’s no effort to offer even a thematic conclusion. The final quarter of Her has little sign of the very recognizable humanity that is at the core of the first three quarters of the film, and that’s a shame.
But then, like a relationship, maybe I’m just projecting my own expectations onto Her, and then holding Jonze accountable for not meeting them. Maybe that sense of frustration I get watching it is because I wanted to see something that wasn’t really there. Maybe those questions weren’t Jonze’s intentions. Just like in a relationship, like Theodore and Samantha, maybe I need to let go of my neuroses and learn to appreciate Her for what it is?
Nah. “It’s not you, it’s me?” Hardly.