Commuters on public transportation softly talk to no one, staring nonchalantly at small screens in their hands, an ear bud positioned in one ear; people meander on clean, modern Los Angeles streets, skyscrapers and neon art installations rising behind them, their eyes downcast as they murmur to their smartphones – this is the not-so-distant future world Spike Jonze gives us in Her, and it isn’t tough to imagine. The director’s film premiered at the 51st New York Film Festival, where he cited his setting as being neither utopian or dystopian – he tours his environs through main character Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), who navigates the city and its sleek, window-laden, wood-paneled, metal-embellished offices and apartments in something of a daze.
This is because Twombly is fresh off a separation from wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), a woman he couldn’t seem to open up to, whom he couldn’t accept for who she was – he’s torn up about it, the walking wounded – zombified in a sea of zombies. Twombly is Letter Writer #612 for a personalized note-crafting company called BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com – he weaves sentiments and regrets aloud as his computer transcribes the musings in calligraphy or crayon or simple ink, specialized for the sender. He’s been communicating as a go-between for his clients for years – knows their crooked teeth and nervous laughter better than they do. So – in this disconnected setting – when Theodore purchases a fresh new computer operating system, an intuitive iOS catered specifically to his personality and needs, it’s something of a life raft washing ashore Theodore’s deserted island.
The voice behind the computer is Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) – perky, enthusiastic and smart, she quickly whips Theodore’s e-life into shape, and her smoky intonations become a reprieve for him on sleepless nights and frustrated days. As Samantha becomes more sentient, Theodore falls for her. The world that Jonze has given us – one that is constantly plugged in, isolated, prone to crushing loneliness – makes Samantha a savior for us, as well. Jonze is sparing with his humor, but he peppers it throughout the narrative (Chris Pratt as Theodore’s coworker, Amy Adams as his best friend and creator of a hilarious competitive parenting video game, a phone-sex operator, and a potty-mouthed video game character are a few memorable emotional lifts) to remind us that Theodore doesn’t simply live in a cold, cruel world – humans may be grafting with their smartphones, but they’re still capable of interaction. The deft juxtaposition between technology and humanity is alarmingly prescient, as is the conundrum it creates – when the line between virtuality and reality becomes paper thin, what happens when you cross it?
Jonze’s answer is complicated, of course, but it boils down to the fact that gambling on growing and changing at the same rate as another person is a losing game. The filling of the hole, the chase, the dance is what Jonze gives us, and through Phoenix’s endearing, heartbreaking, poignant performance, it becomes all too familiar. Johansson, too, is fantastic in both contrast and complement to Phoenix, bewitching us with only her voice.
Within Jonze’s narrative, we’re told, “The past is just a story we tell ourselves” – and it seems like the writer-director was posing the thought to himself, as well – Her is a spiritual sibling to his early works, but his newest creation feels more fully-realized – Jonze tackles similar questions of heartbreak, listlessness and loneliness with an understated, achingly human touch. Her is humorous and heartfelt and sad and silly and uncomfortable and every other possible emotion on the human spectrum. It’s a prescient, funny, wrenching glimpse at how we court loneliness in our efforts to chase it away. For all its spot-on futuristic elements, the overwhelming feeling one receives from Her is that of being a flesh-and-blood being, with all the messy emotional bells and whistles our operating systems offer.
Her arrives in theaters in limited release on December 18. Read more of our coverage of the 2013 New York Film Festival.
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