“Is that the movie about the guy who falls in love with his phone?”
The advertisements for Her sold a strange movie. Just over a year ago, Apple unleashed virtual helper Siri on the world; now it seems we have a feature film that deals with a fellow getting a little too sweet on her.
Of course, most movies can’t really be boiled down to a little logline. And the great movies tend to be complex enough to make their DVD-cover summaries look like jokes. Spoiler alert: Her might be one of those great ones. You’ll have to bear with me if this review seems to fall a little short of accurately reflecting the movie it’s talking about.
Because if ever a film existed that proved how reductive it is to simply describe what it’s “about,” it’s this one.
Her is about a guy who falls in love with his phone. Specifically, we’re talking about sensitive soul Theodore, a writer for a website that specializes in surrogate heartfelt, handwritten letters. Anyway, the phone Theodore finds himself falling for is Samantha, a brand-new OS, a true artificial intelligence that learns and grows just like a human would.
Essentially, we’re dealing with a science fiction romance drama, which isn’t as strange a combo as it might seem. Science Fiction is a genre that sort of inherently wants to be paired with another genre. Like, The Thing is sci-fi paired off with horror; Blade Runner with noir… you guys know this already.
Her stands next to the best sci-fi cinema’s seen in a decade. It’s low-key stuff; nothing fancy. Futuristic technology is certainly integral to the storyline, but the movie never seems to be showing off — or over-explaining. There’s no special attention paid to the mechanisms or development that went into Samantha’s A.I., she simply appears one day.
This sands off some of the “cool” we might associate with the genre, but it does so in the service of the film’s larger point(s). Her is much more concerned with our relationships to technology — and each other — than it is with the specifics of technology itself. Still, this movie’s insights absolutely demand Samantha’s fictional OS. Remove the tech, remove the whole point of the movie. That’s how you make real effin’ science fiction.
But mastery of a genre will only get you so far. No matter how cool the concept, you still gotta find people to make the damn thing, and Her lives and dies by their talents.
Let’s start with the acting. You’ve likely heard about Scarlett Johansson’s vocal performance, and it is indeed a great bit of voice acting. Joaquin Phoenix follows up his astonishing turn in The Master with a total 180; he portrays a man every bit as sweet as Freddie Quell was depraved., The supporting cast doesn’t leave these folks hanging. Chris Pratt and Rooney Mara overdeliver despite somewhat thankless roles, and Amy Adams flat-out kills it in an under-appreciated supporting turn.
Of course, when you have a roster of performances this strong, some of the credit has to go to the director. Spike Jonze earned his feature film stripes with psychologically bizarre fare like Being John Malkovich and Where the Wild Things are, but this is both his best and most accessible movie to date.* I’ve admired his ambition and ability to navigate this type of heady material, but often from a distance. The aforementioned movies are arguably brilliant in their own way, sure, but I never connected with them.
But I really, really connected with this one.
Maybe that has to do with this being the first time he’s held the sole writing credit on one of his movies. Maybe it’s just the mix of things in this specific story. Whatever the reason, Jonze hits this one out of the friggin’ park. Every character, even the small supporting players, has a fully-formed personality and point of view. As discussed above, the sci-fi element is handled gracefully, whether hovering around the edges of the story or taking up the entire frame.
I could keep hyperbolizing. The cinematography, the editing, the production design… every aspect of this production is so good that it’s practically invisible. Every decision seems to have been made in the interest of articulating the story and its characters, as opposed to serving the simpler masters of aesthetic and tone.**
But more than being well-made, Her is truly a Great Movie. Still, it’s 2013 — a banner year for Great Movies. What makes this one stand out? Well, Her somehow manages to tap into the zeitgeist in a way that no other feature I’ve seen this year has. It’s like The Social Network or The Dark Knight, a movie that will always take me back to the exact year it came out. Her traps 2013 in amber for the rest of time.
Her is about romance and isolation; expectations and reality; video games, internet dating, and pornography; joy and sorrow; humanity and technology; growing up and staying the same.
But yes, it’s about a guy who falls in love with his phone.
5 out of 5 stars
*He’s also an actor — check him out in Wolf of Wall Street!
**Not that the movie’s toneless or anything… its aesthetic accomplishments are both brilliant and fascinating. They simply plays second fiddle to the actual narrative, which is how it should be.