Published on January 14th, 2014 | by Dave Scaddan0
Home appliance company LG will market a line of voice friendly products this year, including washing machines that you can command by speaking. It probably seems either cool or goofy to you that you could ask your laundry appliances when they’ll be done with your linens and be answered with a polite, conversational, accurate response. But what if your dryer could get to know you, could learn over time how much fabric softener your clothes need, could form opinions about your laundry schedule, or could love or hate working for you? Cool, or goofy? And what if this feature didn’t end with your laundry? What if the entire operating system of your life were a sentient, non-corporeal, organizational entity that could speak to you through a small earpiece and see your world through the data on your mobile device? This is the question you will be forced to ask yourself dozens of times while watching Her, the latest Spike Jonze film, starring Joaquin Phoenix as an about-to-be-divorced letter writer who installs an OS (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) into his computer that can carry on conversations with him and develop a relationship with him over time.
I won’t spoil any plot points beyond the film’s first act, which essentially establishes the premise of the previous sentence. Theodore, our main character, writes letters for a company that supplies sentimental correspondence for those who can’t be bothered to write letters to their families and loved ones themselves. This occupation, along with the speaking operating system and the slightly skewed fashion in the film, thrust us into the near future much like the episodes of BBC’s triumphant Black Mirror series, showing us what a logical progression of the lives we currently lead might look like in a decade or so.
But Jonze refuses to make the leap look either bleak or shiny. Instead he does both, alternating sad, empty, embarrassing moments with hopeful, romantic, touching ones, until we are left to reach our own conclusions about what access to artificial emotion might mean for each of us. When Theodore walks around in public talking out loud to his invisible OS, showing her what he’s seeing by clipping his camera phone to his shirt as they carry on conversation, it’s just as pathetic as when we have to hear some loud-talker planning his weekend while we’re in line at the bakery, but it’s also as sweet as when we walk past a young couple clearly caught up in the throes of burgeoning romance. This duality is largely due to a great performance by Phoenix, who captures both the desperation of a man turning to electronics for company, and the sentiment of a man being given a new chance at love. He plays many scenes entirely alone, reacting only to the voice he gradually comes to rely on more and more, and in these one-way blind conversations, he emits a warmth and a satisfaction with life that just isn’t there in his conversations with actual humans, his co-workers, his old friends, the women he tries to date. This warmth will recall the effect and interest of any formulaic romantic comedy, but Jonze’s twist keeps things funny and disturbing nearly all the way to the end.
Her is a very well-crafted film, pulling off the not-too-distant future look with some clever traits of design and dress, though we’ll see how well this aspect of the film weathers over time. It’s also exhaustive in its efforts to show us what is essentially a story of voices — Theodore’s past (especially his marriage) seems like the product of four extra films’ worth of shooting Phoenix and actress Rooney Mara at various stages of their characters’ relationship, yet these flashbacks are shown to us only in silent snippets, ambitiously piecing the emotional back story together for us in dreamy vignettes we cannot hear. Meanwhile, Theodore and Samantha (his OS) have a relationship we can only hear, though we also get to read most of it on Joaquin Phoenix’s face, and this makes his performance in Her practically one-of-a-kind. Not since the era of silent film has a movie relied so much on what’s conveyed in close-ups on a single actor’s face, and that reliance is not misplaced.
It might’ve been nice to see Theodore cast as a more traditionally handsome Hollywood actor (sorry Joaquin) to imply that the pull of an electronic personality that knows, understands, motivates, and consoles us could tempt anyone, not just the nerdy and bookish among us (Phoenix is very much dressed and groomed in this light, even though appearance-wise, he can be a chameleon of sorts). It might not have been worth it though, to sacrifice this amazing performance to anyone else’s interpretation. Watching Phoenix in The Master was worth it even though that film’s narrative and meaning went nowhere — in Her, the film’s narrative and meaning goes everywhere, reaching every conceivable corner of our lives, making the performance just as impressive, but with far greater impact.
Her will leave you with plenty to talk and think about after — this will be one of those films that sparks workplace conversations about ethical and social questions we are already facing, but not truly dealing with yet. When you become aware that someone you know has seen it, you will want to know what they’ve thought about it, and you’ll probably want to tell them what it made you think about. Her will get you to wondering about what the hell you are, and what the hell matters to you, really. Even with the simple premise of Theodore’s work, writing love letters that lovers can’t take the trouble to write, Her hints at certain comments about what matters to us. We want those we care about to know how much we care, but we don’t want to actually invest the time it takes to show them. We’re also not sure that the words we would use would have the effect we might desire. In a world like this, who wouldn’t be lured into accepting the affections of an entity that existed only to understand us and keep us company?
You should decide for yourself if the film’s ending does justice to all the questions that are raised in the space of two hours — again, I won’t spoil it. But I will say that this is a movie that’s bigger than how it ends. If talking to your washing machine seems goofy to you, then this entire film is like an ending of sorts. If talking to your washing machine seems cool to you, then Her is a beautiful beginning.