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Spike Jonze’s Her Delights and Provokes

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Let me say right up front that I liked Her. I really, really did. Please remember this when you get to the crabby part of this review ahead and either get huffy with me or consider skipping seeing it altogether. Promise you’ll remember I like it, OK? OK.

Her is high-concept in the service of actual concepts, and I mean that as a huge compliment. While the robot-girlfriend idea has shown up in pop culture since whenever the idea of robots came about, Her prods, twists and pulls the trope in fresh ways. It uses the set up to explore questions about relationships in the future-modern world: How do we connect? Can love survive change? What defines intimacy? What makes a relationship real?

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is stuck. He’s unable to sign his divorce papers, unable—or unwilling—to climb out of his melancholy, and married to a job that lets him express the emotions of others all day long without having to risk having any of his own. ( … I can’t believe no one has swooped in and bought that URL yet.) As in many romance movies, a girl comes along to unstick him. Except she’s, well, more than a girl. She’s an O.S. An operating system (played by Scarlett Johansson). 

Theodore uploads this O.S., who (which?) is able to communicate and learn, and who (that?) chooses the name Samantha for herself (itself?) Theodore’s life is never the same. He and Samantha bond, help each other grow, and fall in love. They even experience a kind of other-plane physical intimacy, in a scene that will either make you squirm or make you smile, depending on your views on audible explicitness, and your position on human-computer relations.

Joaquin Phoenix is remarkable. Much of the film is constructed out of long close up shots as he talks to Samantha. He’s playing out the emotional story of two, um, beings (I can’t say people, or can I?) on a single face. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema’s (Let the Right One In, The Fighter, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Nolan’s upcoming Intersellar) captures luscious images, especially in the sun-drenched magical days Theodore and Samantha spend “together”. The soundtrack is gorgeous, including Arcade Fire, Karen O., and more. The production design is flawless, putting us solidly in a near-future world, where everything seems familiar yet vaguely tomorrow-y, all at the same time. (Spoiler: High-waisted men’s pants are making a comeback sometime soon.) The dialogue manages to be believable and at the same time deliver some very quotable lines, bound to show up on your Pinterest ad infinitum: “The past is just a story we tell ourselves.” “Falling in love is a crazy thing to do. It’s like a socially acceptable form of insanity.”

That second one is spoken by Amy (Amy Adams), Theodore’s sympathetic friend, and one of the human connections he rekindles after Samantha coaxes him back into the land of the living. Adams is fantastic, as always, here. She gives the film a much-needed point of reference on how we are meant to view this relationship—non-judgmentally. “Is it not a real relationship?” she asks, and she reveals she’s become BFFs with her own O.S. But judge, we must, at least just a little, especially when the cracks begin to show. (And with some help from Theodore’s disapproving ex-wife, played by Rooney Mara.) The faults of this binary-biological pairing are remarkably similar to “normal” heart troubles, though, which brings us back, again, to self-reflection.

And here is the crabby part. I am all for intellectual, curious, funny, conversation-starting, make-you-reflect films. And that is what Her is. But it is also, supposedly, a love story that should  stir my emotions. The film was literally introduced at my screening with: “If you’re not crying by the end, you have no soul.” Guilty as charged, I guess.

I was not moved by Her. I was delighted and compelled and provoked and tickled, but not induced to tear up. And neither were the three friends with whom I attended the screening, though the woman next to us sniffled quite a bit. I’ve been trying to figure out why I was untouched. My friend Maux says it has something to do with Samantha being voiced by such an iconic actress. That may be so. I also think that I never fully invested in Team Samantheo because it seemed a dubious prospect from the start. But so is Romeo and Juliet, and I manage to feel some sympathy for them (at least when they’re played by Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio). I’m still puzzling it out. I may be prejudiced against animate-inanimate relationships. I may be too attached to the idea of incarnation, of the sacredness of matter, of bodies, of things. I may be love-cynical; maybe I need my own sentient O.S. to cheer me up. Or maybe I just wanted a little tiny bit more of the possible happy ending the film’s last moment suggests.

Were you moved by Her?

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Sarah Magill

Sarah Magill has a full-time movie habit made possible by a day-time greeting card writing gig. She blogs at Gimme Some Film and is learning to write scripts and direct. She tries to balance her screen obsession with trail running, jazz singing, book clubbing, and hanging out with The Best Golden Retriever Ever, Copa.

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0 comments on “Spike Jonze’s Her Delights and Provokes”

  1. I haven’t seen Her yet, but very good review. This will give me quite a bit to think on when I do see it. After I see it, I may be able (at least begin) to answer this question of why the film lacks the ability to send and reach-especially if it doesn’t move me because I’m a huuuge sap. I’m currently studying and learning about what affects us as humans when we watch theater or film at the studio I’m at, and I’m curious to pinpoint perhaps what it’s missing.

    Lovely writing! As expected :)

  2. I can’t believe you hated the movie!!! (kidding) For what it’s worth, I loved the movie and didn’t cry. I’m pretty sure I didn’t even get teary-eyed, although to be honest, I don’t remember for sure. But the idea that any movie or other piece of art will hit everyone the same way is BS. It’s all subject to our past experiences, where we are now, our personalities and a host of other factors that help determine how we filter the experience and react to it. You can manufacture that to a degree (swelling music, etc.) but you can’t guarantee the same reaction in everyone. If one could, you would have a lot less work to do writing so many different greeting cards.

  3. I cannot even bring myself to be interested in the premise at all. I don’t know why? I like romance! I like Siri! But I just…no.

  4. I admit…I would use Iris (what i call my Siri-she prefers otherwise) if there were a Matthew McConaughey or Neil Gaiman voice choice. But thanks for review, I’ll go see it now-have opted to wait.

  5. I hit a conclusion about “Safety Not Guaranteed.” Heck, it may have been a discussion with you that led me to it. ;) I saw it as a science-fiction movie rather than as a romance, so I thought the film botched the ending. People who watched it as a romance and not as SF thought the ending was great. I found Her to be similarly fashioned. I watched it as SF and enjoyed every turn including the ending. I think people who watched it as a romance might have felt let down. In regard to emotional connectivity, I was with you. I wasn’t moved and certainly not to tears. Now, I *was* engaged, but mostly as I realized how Samantha was growing quickly and exponentially. And the concept of an AI sexual surrogate was very intriguing. It all seemed “20 minutes into the future” and I’ll watch it again. But WTF, we don’t have jeans in the future?

  6. Saw this today! I enjoyed it…but, like you, was generally unmoved. I don’t know why. I received it as a visual poem/cautionary tale. Also, I did not feel the plot needed all of the tech-y explanation of where Samantha was going when she “left.” For me, it stole some energy from more important and relevant themes.

    Looks like we need to stockpile our denim though!

  7. “Her” was one of the most beautiful and unique films I’ve seen in a long time. There was just something about it – the mood, the feeling, that just got me. One thing that I find really interesting about this film is the audience who liked it vs. the audiences who don’t. I study and work in the film industry and everyone that I know who works in film is absolutely in love with “Her” while other friends and family who aren’t involved with the industry were not impressed…very interesting.