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A Note on ‘Her’

Truffaut and I have two things in common. 1) We both get particularly precious when we talk about film, becoming painfully pretentious as I quote people like Truffaut. 2) We believe great films and directors present optimistically the potentiality of human nature.  That is to say, they almost naively approach the world with an air of childlike optimism that reaffirms your faith in life.  This is why I adore Spike Jonze’s Her.

Her is an unlikely, very original and strangely conventional love story set in a futuristic Los Angeles. Now, I say conventional despite this particular relationship never really being explored before.  It’s conventional because, regardless one of the members of the relationship is not actually real, it is just a love story that explores loss, jealousy, heartbreak, loneliness and the enduring human capacity to love.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a quiet and lonely man who is dealing with an impending divorce.  Through the letters he composes for other people at his job we are shown a romantic soul with a gift for words.  He desires a human connection, like it appears everyone in his world does, but they are all increasingly held captive by their technology.  Even the most eventful human interaction his has is with an online chat with an anonymous woman named SexKitten (Kristin Wiig), where they have “phone sex” and she promptly hangs up.  His video games are fully interactive, Alien Boy (Spike Jonze) cursing at him and throwing playful insults.  With such a detachment from people, with so much communication being virtual, it’s no wonder he builds an emotional bond with his new operation system (OS).

Samantha, played on set but off camera by Samantha Morton and later voiced by Scarlett Johansson, is a companion OS designed to learn everything she can inorder to be the perfect companion, which includes picking up on humor, voice inflection and as it turns out, emotion.  As desires increase, expectations develop with each other in the relationship, things get surprising complicated between Samantha and Theodore.  You believe everything about what they are experiencing, which is the major trick for this sort of story.  As soon as anything rings untrue, the spell is broken.

Both Johansson and Phoenix are phenomenal, so heartfelt and sympathetic you feel deeply for a two people who never share any screen time.  Phoenix’s turn as Theodore is tender, courageously honest and more moving than anything I’ve seen in a romantic film over the last decade. He walks a very delicate line between the authentic and the absurd which quickly made this my favorite lead performance of the year (sorry Chiwetel, the race is insanely close).

And while the film can get “heavy,” there is a tremendous amount of comedy as Samantha and Theodore try to make their relationship work.  There is a notable scene where Samantha considers getting a physical surrogate to help the romance between them.  And that scene goes further to show how desperate everyone in this world is to be part of a special relationship.  And later, during one of their arguments as jealous rears its ugly head, we are reminded that he his dating his computer! We laugh at the writing and also at ourselves for caring so much.

Aside from the surrogate, the other three women that Theodore interacts in the physical world are played by Olivia Wilde, Rooney Mara and Amy Adams.  Adams is Amy, a neighbor and long time friend that seems to share some of Theodore’s loneliness and insecurities (a lot of those brought on by a condescending, pompous husband played by Matt Letscher).  Adams is her ever-charming self as she encourages Theodore without any hint of judgment.  The full supporting cast just helps make this my favorite love story since Eternal Sunshine.

A SPOILER (of sorts) IS COMING so stop reading if you want….

One final note.  This poignant and original story is so marvelously structured we become emotional invested in a bizarre relationship that in the end makes us question which interactions we value.  We’re always concerned about technology turning on us that it’s rare to find a movie that raises the more terrifying question; what if technology simply abandons us? What if it feels it has outgrown us? Where have we invested our emotions? What dependency have we developed?   And this is where that childlike optimism comes in from Mr. Jonze.  The film shows us that all interactions can be valuable if we approach them with trust and abandon.  And when one connection is gone, there is the hope of another.  And considering plunge into love after a bad break up is optimistic in itself. Falling in love, as Amy says, is the weird form of socially accepted insanity.  There is a final breath at the end of the movie, where I felt we could see a bright future, there will be insanity again.


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