Her (2013) Film Review from the 51th Annual New York Film Festival (NYFF), a movie directed by Spike Jonze, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Olivia Wilde, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt, Portia Doubleday, Sam Jaeger, Katherine Boecher, Kelly Sarah, Alia Janine, Cassandra Starr, Kim Farris, and Laura Meadows.
This science fiction romance film set in a not-so-far-off future marks Jonze’s solo screenwriting debut. Her focuses on a man who develops a relationship with a female voice produced by his computer operating system.
Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) encompasses a unique element of loneliness that strikes the viewer at the core. I felt unnerved and exposed, because somehow, he encapsulated the kind of melancholy and sadness one only knows after being ejected from a relationship before the heart has closure. Phoenix packages the perfect balance of loneliness and blind hopefulness. The journey the audience takes with Theodore’s character is believable and heartfelt; from his early hesitations of bonding with a AI, to his struggles to maintain positive relationships with human beings. Theodore, it turns out, is a little bit of everyone and we’re all a little bit like Theodore.
Jonze masterfully incorporates futuristic technology to further explore very human and very complicated emotions. Filmed in both China and Los Angeles, the visuals incorporate bright colors, city skylines, and the neon of the busy nights. As Theodore wanders the world everyone is isolated – connected only through the technology in their hands and ears – no other character looking up to talk to another character. The conversations between Theodore and his few friends (Amy Adams and Chris Pratt) are startling and painful to watch. The words are not carefully chosen, the pauses, exhales, the time to formulate thoughts and sentences will remind the viewer so much of the beauty and pain of being a human. Those human conversations counter Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), who starts at the beginning of her programming as an eager and naïve program. Not yet exposed to the burdens of self-doubt and insecurity, she is pure and honest.
I had my concerns, as many would, about the director’s challenge of relying on an audience’s imagination to fully create his female lead Samantha. Her existence is often limited to Theodore’s small phone, no bigger than a cigarette case, and the accompanied ear piece. It was a question brought up during the Q&A session following the screening – how Phoenix best prepared to act with an invisible co-star when he had only a few small props? Typical of Phoenix’s reluctance to answer questions and interact with press, Phoenix’s answer was simple – as an actor, he was quite accustomed to talking to himself out loud, this time, he was just being paid to do it.
As a character, Samantha proves to be a complicated and juicy role for Johansson. In a short period of time Samantha grows from the innocent emotions of a child to the sophistication of a woman who can recognize her own needs and desires. Limited strictly to the intonation of her voice, I believe Johansson to be entirely worthy of a campaign for an Oscar nomination. There is such a rich warmth from her character that is never seen. Jonze and fellow cast member Olivia Wilde commented on the choice to leave Samantha strictly as a voice. Instead of borrowing from advancing technologies that could provide Samantha with a visual avatar, Jonze restricted her “appearance” to audio. Her lack of body allows the audience to create his or her own ideal; what the viewer craves and hopes for in the significant other.
A relationship with an AI, full of complexities like a sexual relationship with a missing body, is fully explored in the film. The heaviness of the relationship is balanced with comedy in strange places. Amy develops a video game called Perfect Mom and Theodore is often seen conversing with a small avatar from his own video game. The lewd character often curses at Theodore and comments on the strange nature of their relationship. At times it seems that those avatars throughout the various video games are more honest than the humans that Theodore interacts with. Furthermore, I find it a strong decision of Jonze to keep Amy’s AI out of reach for the audience. While Amy does interact with the character, talking through her earpiece, we only hear her side of the conversation. It showed a tentative relationship with an AI, not sexual or romantic, and helped to further elaborate that we find comfort where it best suits us. It is sometimes the most unique situations and people that comfort us in our hours of need.
The large open spaces of the film counter the close and tight intimate relationship that Theodore and Samantha have, primarily because it is limited to the ear piece and the phone. Theodore, even with Samantha, is alone in large open spaces, including his expansive apartment. It’s possible that this apartment was shared with his past wife (a brief role played by Rooney Mara after Carrie Mulligan dropped out).
I think Her best conveys a new heightened type of long-distance relationship. Instead of geographic separation, they are separated by different planes of existence. In long distance relationships, couples must thrive on the constant communication and the slight paranoia of not hearing from a significant other by a text message, e-mail, or phone call. It is a relationship based on patience and trust but always with the hope and optimism of reuniting. What does a couple do when they will never reunite and furthermore, never meet? Samantha triers to solve this problem by bringing in a third party, a young woman who serves as a vessel for AI’s in relationships. While Samantha truly believes in the idea and wants to try this, it breaks the spell that Theodore lives under. Like the audience, Theodore has created an ideal of what Samantha is, and when a substitute is placed in front of him, he cannot buy into the actualization of an ideal because it is sub-par. He inadvertently brings the young woman and Samantha to tears. It causes a great strain on the relationship.
In the present time where relationships can survive with Skype, Facetime, Facebook, Messengers, texting, picture texts, and so much more, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility for this relationship to exist. But like Theodore, I too would create an ideal and would be unable to settle for anything less than the version I knew and loved. The need to be touched, loved, and not feel lonely is such a potent emotion and Phoenix’s performance is superb. Only when the camera lingers, perhaps even a beat too long, did I ever feel I was watching Joaquin Phoenix and not his character, Theodore.