#12 — Her (Spike Jonze, 2013)
The basic plot description of Her, written and directed by Spike Jonze, implies that the film is a despairing broadside against modern technology. In an indeterminate near future, Theodore Twombley (Joaquin Phoenix) is a writer with a unique specialty, penning highly personal letters to order for people who are unable to put their feelings down on paper. He upgrades the shared operating system on his various personal devices to the latest and greatest, complete with an all-inclusive personal assistant based on artificial intelligence. During the implementation, the virtual cohort chooses the name Samantha (she’s voiced by Scarlett Johansson, giving a warm, deft performance). Armed with a wealth of data about Theodore and general human nature, Samantha automatically ingratiates herself — itself — to this person who booted her up. A strange romance follows.
Jonze has a cunning visual sense, sending the images aswirl in softness when Theodore recalls his lost love (Rooney Mara) and capturing a hard society bathed in the reflected light of technology. His primary attribute as a director, though, is a trademark deadpan wonderment, an unmatched capacity for concocting fantastic scenarios and presenting them plainly. As Theodore falls under the spell of Samantha, he isn’t held up for derision nor flabbergasted curiosity. In Jonze’s estimation, Theodore is simply taking another avenue of making sense of the world, of his emotions, of his very being, and it’s not all that odd, at least not notably odder than the route anyone else might take. Her speaks of the intense desire for connection, a rushing stream through all of humanity, and it depicts and mulls Theodore’s emotional collapse into artificially generated canoodling less as a scathing indictment of what is lost as technology encroaches and more as a fresh approach to highlighting what is so dearly, desperately needed. Maybe the falsehood that prompts the feelings isn’t all that terrible if the feelings Theodore feels are real.
It’s an astounding feat of precarious, high-wire balance that Jonze pulls off, mostly because he never lets his premise wash away the humanity. Phoenix is amazing in the lead role, exposing Theodore’s inner being like an open wound. And his performance is matched and countered by Amy Adams, playing a game designer friend of Theodore’s who has her own cynical, pragmatic appraisal of life, which is in turn reflected in the mundane scenarios she creates for her digital diversions. Adams fills her performance with a deeply felt reality — the casualness of living day to day — that makes the film’s inventions feel as close and tangible as a mailbox. Her truthfulness lengthens Phoenix’s tether, lets him move further in the gnarled forest of Theodore’s peculiar obsession. The acting feels strategically collaborative, and Jonze knows how to use that synchronicity to make his film smarter, warmer, deeper.
Her is moving and poignant. It’s high-concept premise is merely a starting point, a thought experiment that blossoms into drama, not markedly different than any number of other initiating ideas over the years. Jonze is playing with new devices, but he’s asking age-old questions. He is scrutinizing the progress bar of humanity’s self-actualization, wondering what makes it edge a few more pixels to completion.