My movie buddy drifted off to sleep during the talky new sci-fi film “Her.” My own mind wandered a bit and I started remembering the day, in the 1970s, when I dropped acid with a girl named Sally and we were talking about relationships.
The good news about Spike Jonze’s unusual film is the terrific acting by Joaquin Phoenix, as Theodore Twombly, a cuddly nebbish who falls in love with a computer program, and by Amy Adams, whose acting abilities are displayed as a warm and extremely vulnerable friend – wonderfully contrasted with the hard-hearted con artist she plays in “American Hustle,” which is still drawing bigger crowds at the same theater – and very nice cameos by Rooney Mara as the estranged wife and Olivia Wilde as a potential human girlfriend. Scarlett Johannson’s voice, as the computer program, is also excellent. Nobody could fault the directing and editing. They create a dreamlike, flashback and real-time, maybe possible, maybe not possible, euphoria that is shared between the movie and the audience.
Another terrific thing about “Her” is the settings. It’s in the future, but only slightly, supposedly in Los Angeles. Everything seems reasonably contemporary but still foreign, unusual, and futuristic. At the end of the film, we noticed that a lot of it was shot in Shanghai, not Los Angeles. Also at the end, we saw two American union logos, IATSE and SAG-AFTRA.
Jonze uses the unusual man/computer love story to investigate aspects of heterosexual relationships between educated and affluent white people – pretty much what most U.S. movies investigate, but you’ll have to admit it’s a peculiar approach. As the computer program, “Samantha,” has no corporeal form, a lot of the variables present in usual love stories are left out. The intellectual side, Jonze probably figured, was thus easier to explore.
There is some growing tension in the plot. Samantha has artificial intelligence, which is already here in experimental stages. From the beginning, it’s clear that Samantha, like all our computer programs, has certain advantages over humans. Will her learning ability soon cause her to surpass all intellectual abilities of the devoted Theodore? If so, will she do what most machines do in “Terminator” and most sci-fi – decide to murder the human race? Or will she, like the superior computers in the Star Trek franchise, just get better and better at serving the values of humanity? Will Samantha and Theodore journey together to nirvana, or is she more likely to take up with someone intellectually advanced and more suitable? Would the 1970s-type obsession with Eastern mysticism, apparently an interest of director Jonze, point Samantha and/or Theodore toward an ultimate solution? Trying to figure out a good ending is a good way to get through this long film.
But it’s pretty much all talky-talky, and people are never going to solve their problems by finding some one special person that will magically put their lives straight, no matter how hard they try and how many movies they make about it.
Trying to find a way to express my impression of the film, I thought about the long ago day that I talked for several long minutes about relationships to the equally stoned Sally. When I finally wound down and waited eagerly for a response, she changed the subject. “Wait a minute,” I interrupted. “Didn’t you hear what I just said?”
“Yes, I heard everything you said,” Sally said with a sweet wide smile. “It just wasn’t very profound.”
Directed by Spike Jonze
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson
2013, rated R, 126 min.