BY STEWART SMITH
What gives us the capacity to fall in love? Can we choose who we fall in love with and how we fall in love with them? “Her,” Spike Jonze’s latest film, may be based on a somewhat silly premise but it has some hefty ideas about love and life on its mind.
If you want to be reductive about it, “A lonely guy falls in love with Siri” tritely sums up the premise and in the hands of a lesser director it either would have become a truly awkward and forced film that rests upon the laurels of faux sentimentality, or it would have stooped to the levels of twee quirkiness that populate so much of the indie film scene these days.
The ability to maintain a certain level of sincerity, believability and empathy is crucial in something like this and thankfully Jonze has, if nothing else, showcased a keen eye for tone amid the often subversively (and sometimes overtly) wild ideas upon which he builds his films.
“Her,” however, is by far his most tender and heartfelt film, one that seeks to understand and examine the ways that humans connect and why we allow ourselves to become vulnerable and fall in love. Is it instinct? Are we all hardwired to do so? Or are we shaped more by our experiences than our natural predispositions? Can we choose who we fall in love with?
All of these questions are filtered through the relationship between Samantha (brought to vibrant life thanks to a wonderful vocal performance by Scarlett Johansson) and Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix). On the brink of finalizing his divorce, Theodore has been content to immerse himself in his work and spend his evenings playing video games. But when he boots up a brand new operating system, he soon discovers that he may have found more than just a new program to organize his e-mail and remind him about appointments. He may very well have found his soul mate.
And who can blame him? Samantha, despite being 1’s and 0’s given verbal form, displays an insatiable desire for knowledge and an excitement about the world into which she’s been dropped. She wants to know about everything, including what it means and what it’s like to fall in love.
How many stories have we heard of people falling in love with someone they only know via the Internet or through written letters or long distance relationships? Is Samantha really so different from those situations? She may be only a voice, but she has a mind of her own, personality in spades and shows as much, if not more, eagerness to learn and grow and evolve as any flesh and blood human being. Does that make her any less of a person?
That’s the other striking thought that Jonze asks us to confront. When something is conscious and shows the capacity for adaptation and growth. Should it not then be considered a person? Samantha makes a strong case that it should, regardless of how advanced her knowledge capacity is or how limited she is in physical form.
There’s a wonderful tenderness at the heart of “Her” that pulls all of this together. This is a premise that could quite easily see the bottom fall out or simply garner so much sincerity that it devolves into self-parody. But Jonze understands the wounds that fester and the doubt and fear that grows in the wake of having one’s heartbroken and he’s genuinely out to examine what it is that allows us to become so vulnerable in the first place.
The questions it asks are honest, as are the performances that drive it. Phoenix is, obviously, at the center of things and he thankfully finds a balance between showing just how depressed and confused Theodore feels without ever making him seem like a limp, milquetoast. It’s a quiet, nuanced bit of acting that only further shows just how diverse an actor Phoenix can be. It’s hard to believe this is the same guy we saw only a year ago in “The Master.”
It’s Johansson, though, who quietly and sweetly steals the show. There aren’t really many roles to compare this to, so in some ways it feels like Johansson is breaking some ground. Sure, HAL from “2001” was a disembodied voice with a (cold) personality, but we were never meant to attach ourselves to him. The entire film hinges on the execution of Samantha’s concept and Johansson does such a marvelous job at embodying the spirit of this electronic person that you can almost see the tinges of who she might actually be were she given physical form. It’s incredible work and it’s disheartening that she was denied the chance to be honored by various awards outlets simply because only her voice was heard.
“Her” isn’t a film for everyone. It requires one to fully suspend one’s disbelief in order to fully get on board with what it is that Jonze is trying to discuss and dissect. But I found it to be one of the most rich and lovingly crafted films I’ve seen in a long time and one that both tugged at my heart and tickled my brain. One can hardly ask for more from art than that.