Directed by Spike Jonze
Released in 2013
Her speaks so plainly and openly about the state of love today — in spite of its not-so-distant future setting — that it is next to impossible not to connect with it, in some way. Director-writer Spike Jonze wields sentimentality to great effect, guaranteeing his viewers feel the ‘feels’ through a whispered ukulele song or a swelling, tearful break-up. You cannot deny Jonze’s ability to manipulate his audience, no doubt, yet you can — or at least I will, here — question his technique and the artistry of the final product. It is futile to criticize Her’s performances and emotional power, but that does not mean it is a very good film.
I think it was the moment Olivia Wilde’s character, a blind date, splits with Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), in the first act of the film, when I felt … a tremor. Some unpleasant awareness tore me from the world of the story, with its lacquered rooms and high-waisted trousers. I could liken this disturbance to sleep paralysis, brewing an unshakable anxiety behind the eyes as I came to the following realization: Oh no, this dialogue is not good.
Spike Jonze’s first solo screenplay effort features an enviable conceit — a lonely man falls in love with Samantha, his hyper-intelligent, gregarious operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) — but forgoes almost any naturalism once someone speaks. The result gives us characters constantly thematizing their lives rather than simply living them. A lot of “What are these feelings I am feeling?” and not much feeling, you know? Theodore’s best friend, Amy (Amy Adams, in a real 180 from American Hustle), only talks in tidy aphorisms about the nature of love and desire, like in the trailer’s centerpiece: “Falling in love is a crazy thing to do. It’s like a socially acceptable form of insanity.” Many cherish a good line like that, and I do not doubt it has already made the rounds on tumblr. For me and my cold, dark heart, however, it’s just too on-the-nose to not fidget in my chair and sigh.
The film’s constant broaching of subtext precludes any actual subtext from developing, and not just in dialogue. Jonze has the annoying tendency to interpolate flashbacks of Theodore’s failed marriage (Rooney Mara plays the ex-wife) throughout the first two-thirds of the film. These Instagram-filtered snippets inject a liberal dose of preciousness, serving as heavy-handed exposition to remind you how simultaneously perfect and awful his ex-wife was to him. Jonze also seems adverse to the long take (which Paul Thomas Anderson used to mesmerizing effect when shooting Phoenix in The Master) and too often resorts to cliché in the editing.
By the end of this story, I came away with the feeling that Jonze bungled the brilliant premise he had. Perhaps some sharper social commentary would have been in order. Jonze sets up parallels between human bodies and commodities — as in, Theodore pays for Samantha, because she is a product. In turn, however, she puts emotional demands on Theodore, as any girlfriend would, flesh or gigabyte.
For instance, when Samantha hires a human surrogate to realize the physical intimacy their sex life has been missing, the girl stays silent as she mouths Samantha’s words and kisses Theodore. There is potential here for Jonze to comment on how, by fetishizing technology, we turn the body into a product. Or something like that. Jonze knows he sets up a pretty neat premise for this scene, yet he does not develop it into anything more. Theodore rebuffs the girl’s advances, she starts to cry and she leaves, though not before cherishing Theodore and Samantha’s relationship and lamenting her loneliness.
Like, is that it? Is the movie just people mulling over their relationship(s) out loud before bursting into tears? Her makes for effective sentimental romance, with a couple interesting questions built into the logline, but I would not elevate it any more than that. To reach a higher echelon, Jonze would have to embed larger questions into his script and direction and trust that the situations and simple gestures within a scene speak for themselves. I would never call Her a bad film, but I have a lot of trouble calling it a great one.
2.5 Stars Out of 5
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.