Hardly Even Know Her, by David Bax
Think about the monsters in Spike Jonze’s last film, Where the Wild Things Are. Think about how even though they truly are monsters – violent, terrifying, brutish, selfish creatures who will absolutely eat you up – they are also capable of deep feeling. They may not be human but they long for understanding, acceptance, companionship and all the other simple, vital things people want. This description of those fantastical beasts would also cover most of the characters in Jonze’s other films. The opportunistic and manipulative puppeteer in Being John Malkovich; the weak and needy screenwriter in Adaptation; be they monster or just misfit, they all want to be loved. Jonze’s newest work, Her, bears the distinction of being the first of his own screenplays that he’s directed and it proves that these thematic similarities were not coincidental.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a resident of Los Angeles in the nearish future. He is separated and soon to be divorced from his wife (Rooney Mara). He is moderately successful but unfulfilled and lonely when a tech company debuts the first ever artificially intelligent operating system. His comes with the voice of a woman, who names herself Samantha and is voiced unexpendably by Scarlett Johansson. The more Samantha learns, the more real she becomes and, eventually, the more she and Theodore fall in love.
Before that happens, though, she helps him organize his life like a magical set of spreadsheets. Part of this means that Samantha is the force that gets Theodore dating again. He arranges to meet a young woman (played by Olivia Wilde) with whom he at first hits it off but who later, when Theodore is a bit more honest, tells him, “You’re a creepy guy.” He’s not, really, or at least he wants not to be. But, then again, maybe he is. Maybe it’s something he can’t turn off. No matter how nice a person he is, maybe he’s still a bit creepy.
That’s where Jonze’s screenplay flirts with tragedy. When you’ve been alone for long enough, a fear sets in that perhaps, despite all the virtues you’re pretty sure you possess, you remain undesirable and will always be so. That’s why it can feel, in such situations, like a true miracle when you find someone. It feels like the sun has risen for the first time in months. Phoenix gives what may be the best performance of his career to date, first demonstrating impeccably universal human self-doubts and then the slow but glorious bloom when you begin to feel more like yourself the more you fall in love with someone else.
Her isn’t only about the new relationships on which you focus all your energy (though it is, fittingly, mostly about that). It’s also about the ones you think about far less; the ones that are facts of your life for better or worse. Mara’s ex-wife character represents – in the impressive way we’ve come to expect from the actress – the person you will never forget you loved but who is also inextricable from the myriad ways you’ve hurt one another. Also in the cast is Amy Adams, subtly doing some of her best work as well in the far less showy role of the old friend whom you have the luxury of taking for granted and vice versa.
Returning to the film’s main concern, though, it’s difficult not to make comparisons to last year’s Ruby Sparks, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Both stories illustrate how easy it is to love someone when their focus is on you and how it becomes more difficult (particularly for men) to come to terms with their gradually ascendant individuality as time goes on. Ruby Sparks, though a decent film, eventually resolved itself in monochromatic histrionics. Her, on the other hand, is far more humanistically messy. It doesn’t land on any conclusion and the above constitutes just one of the many tributaries of the modern human psyche it navigates.
Her is a very big film. Its ideas are big and so is the transporting music, the bravura location photography that incorporates Shanghai seamlessly into its vision of Los Angeles, and the sweetly absurd comedic strokes. Yet, like all of Jonze’s movies, it speaks directly to a tiny, intimate part of the heart. It’s about a person like you or me coming to terms with his inner monster while asking the rest of the world to come to terms with his inner human being.