“Her” isn’t the only film examining how technology alters our relationships. But it may be the first to address this from the technology’s perspective.
This marvelous, bittersweet comedy from visionary Spike Jonze (“Where the Wild Things Are,” “Adaptation”) presents a future unlike the typical apocalyptic visions that fill multiplexes. “Her” flash-forwards a decade or so to a Los Angeles where all things “virtual” are even more hardwired into the culture.
While the bright fashions and decor are more in line with the ’80s, the city is now clean and seemingly crime-free (much of the exteriors were shot in Shanghai). All-in-one earpieces have replaced cellphones, making hands-free communication instantaneous. But that doesn’t mean the same old human problems have vanished.
Enter Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a fundamentally nice guy hampered by the weight of past romances. He’s a former LA Weekly writer now composing heartfelt notes for less-eloquent customers at BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com. Hiding under a mustache, a mop of curly hair and high-waisted tweed pants, Theodore is a bit of a sad sack. (It’s Phoenix’s yang to the yin that was his raging drifter in the Oscar-nominated “The Master.”)
He’s content to keep life at a distance, whether through phone sex or immersive video games. Then he purchases a revolutionary home computer system that unites all his devices.
A commercial for the OS1 boasts, “It’s not just an operating system. It’s a consciousness.”
Samantha, as the OS1 chooses to call herself (a virtuoso performance by Scarlett Johansson as the raspy, enticing voice), doesn’t just organize Theodore’s emails and calendar, she also reads books and composes piano music.
“I’m becoming much more than what they programmed,” Samantha explains. “In every moment I’m evolving. Just like you.”
Soon they are dating?
Jonze approaches the potentially gimmicky material with remarkable subtlety. This is a quiet film. Disarming. It does feature some big laughs — a cherubic, foul-mouthed video game character (voiced by Jonze) supplies the single funniest scene of the past year — but it contemplates even bigger ideas.
Since Samantha’s personality is so enchantingly, resonantly real, we can’t help but perceive her as more than a machine. It’s not odd for Theodore to prefer spending time with her than with the lovely-but-needy women who seem drawn to him (Olivia Wilde plays a too-honest blind date). Even with Samantha’s drawbacks of not having a body, she’s an improved partner for Theodore. She’s certainly less judgmental than his ex, Catherine (Rooney Mara), who berates him when learning of this new relationship.
“You always wanted to have a wife without the challenges of actually dealing with anything real,” she says. “I’m glad that you found someone. Perfect.”
Like the OS1, the plot of “Her” is always evolving in unpredictable ways. Jonze’s screenplay introduces challenging questions: What is love? What is sex? What is self? But it doesn’t just let them hang. It genuinely attempts to confront these brain benders, and not just from Theodore’s standpoint. It’s fascinating to watch (or hear) Samantha figure out what it means to be human just as Theodore ponders the boundaries of artificial intelligence.
“You helped me discover my ability to want,” Samantha tells him.
Whether the film’s finale is considered happy or sad is key toward revealing how much we believe that Samantha is “real.”INVISIBLE WOMAN
In “Her,” Scarlett Johansson conveys funny, confident, sexy, scared — without ever showing her face. As the voice of Samantha, an artificial-intelligence creation, she is exceptional, unique, her.
But will awards voters notice? There are several indications they won’t. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which oversees the Golden Globes, ruled her ineligible (the film was nominated for best picture, actor and director for Sunday’s awards). The Screen Actors Guild has passed her over. Johansson is at least eligible for the Academy Awards (nominations will be announced Jan. 16), but a voice performance from an animated movie has never garnered an Oscar nomination.
Even hybrid live-animated roles like Andy Serkis in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” or Zoe Saldana in “Avatar” tend to get short shrift.
Still, supporting-actor categories tend to be weaker and the standards more flexible, so Johansson may have a shot.