If you’re the sort who grouses in restaurants watching a guy wedded to his iPhone rather than engaged in conversation with his date, then Spike Jonze’s “Her” is right up your anti-tech alley.
“Her” is Jonze’s erudite and urgent wake-up call for our plugged-in times, a bittersweet tale that shouldn’t be dismissed as just another simple-minded pledge drive for Luddites. Set in the not-so-distant future, it’s a smartly attired, well-acted parable about loneliness, love and our failure to communicate compassionately in a technologically accelerating world where we can access anyone, anything anytime, anywhere.
It takes a male fantasy scenario — sad-sack guy (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in drooling love with a hyper-helpful, throaty voiced operating system (Scarlett Johansson) — and avoids turning it into a breezy sex comedy. And do note: Jonze’s story is very much told from the guy’s perspective, so expect a lively debate afterward though no matter how you feel about the premise, you’ll have to agree it’s insightfully executed.
Jonze is an adventurous filmmaker who’s never afraid of falling flat on his face and whose risks often pay off. In “Her” he is a wise observer for a modern conundrum. As in the past, this love story bucks genre specifications, not unlike “Being John Malkovich” — which he also directed though didn’t write. As a screenwriter he every so often flogs his point to death — especially an over-the-top sex phone hookup sequence. Mostly, though, he’s pitch perfect. The Arcade Fire soundtrack hits the right notes; same with the moderately surreal production design by K.K. Barrett and striking photography by Hoyte Van Hoytema.
The greatest debt he owes, though, is to his lead actors. Though they’re never on screen together, Phoenix and Johansson generate more tangible chemistry than some actors who share hours of intimate screen time.
Phoenix, in one of his most accessible roles and sympathetic performances, plays Theodore Twombly, a semi-depressed writer who crafts soul-soothing letters for clients too busy or too crippled by their inability to communicate their affection to loved ones. Theodore’s letters, which he reads aloud with a sense of longing, are blushingly filled with intimate memories only couples should discuss. That someone pays a stranger to communicate these eloquently expressed sentiments is telling and tragic.
Like other characters in Jonze’s vision of the slightly futuristic Los Angeles (Singapore subbing in nicely at points), Theodore spends most of his time plugged into his phone, checking voice mail, news and celebrity photos. He does have a few friends, including a documentary filmmaker (Amy Adams, a bright spot with her frizzy hair and blunt observations), who develops a pessimistic view about love, as well as a happy-in-real-love co-worker played with jocularity by Chris Pratt.
Still reeling from the fallout of a broken relationship, Theodore doesn’t get out much. When he does go on an arranged date with a beautiful woman (Olivia Wilde, who seems to look askance — as I did — at how all the men in this film wear pants way too far above their waistline), it’s a disaster.
Theodore prefers the company of “Samantha,” a sunny operating system that speaks in Johansson’s distinctive voice. It’s easy to see why Samantha keeps Theodore up at nights. She’s also quite unlike Theodore’s honest and realistic ex (Rooney Mara, doing the most with her limited scenes). “You’re dating your computer,” she says in disbelief.
Theodore doesn’t mind since Samantha doesn’t require nearly as much maintenance. Or so he thinks.
Jonze takes this “Twilight Zone”-like premise and tosses some provocative challenges at it, making us feel uncomfortable as he questions whether genuine love can survive our expectations for instant perfection and gratification.
“Her” shows us how and why this disconnect happens. But it does more: It warns us not to turn into that texting person at the restaurant, the bottled-up guy who ignores the best, even if imperfect, live human being sitting across the table.