“Hey, do you want to have a Sunday adventure with me?”
The first thing I wondered upon hearing Spike Jonze‘s new film concerned a man who falls in love with his computer’s intuitive operating system was how he’d thematically comment on the lack of physical connectivity inherent to such a pairing. What didn’t cross my mind until watching Her, however, was how shortsighted and selfish that worldview was in context to an ever-evolving universe populated by myriad personalities and beings. To see this sort of science fiction relationship as absurd or an unrealistic construct manifested by a man ill-equipped to “truly love” is to forget how similarly difficult this disconnect would be for the A.I. yearning to reciprocate. Just as the OS lacks a sense of form for humanity’s touch, we’re missing the expansion of consciousness and potentially limitless computational knowledge this living program needs for its intellectual satisfaction.
So, what would be a lame, one-sided rom/com turning this artificial companionship into a punch line gimmick by lesser hands becomes a transcendent dissection of love at its basest form. Incomprehensible for many when exemplified by two humans oftentimes looking at physical attraction and sexual pleasure above the union of internal beauty, spirit, and empathy, Jonze strips away this opportunity for carnal gratification by providing what could simplistically be construed as a personalized therapy session. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) finds himself engaging in an enlighteningly uncensored conversation deciphering love and life without the superfluity of societal pressures or two-faced interactions opposite Samantha (Scarlett Johansson)—a pure, non-judgmental equal getting introduced to emotion just as he readies to return to its murky waters of pain, longing, and risk that have frightened him since wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) left.
The film in effect acts as a mirror asking the question of whether you’ve been honest with yourself and/or your partner beyond the physical urges blocking your capacity to look deeper within and discern the differences between love, lust, and friendship. The answer, however, isn’t supplied onscreen—Her merely provides you an opening with which to begin that conversation by witnessing its many relationship archetypes and realizing none is perfect. When you see the joy in Theodore and Catherine’s eyes through flashbacks of high school sweethearts who spent decades together before marriage, you wonder how it could ever have turned sour. And while his friend Amy (Amy Adams) and husband Charles (Matt Letscher) appear happy, challenged, and whole, surfaces are always deceiving when latent regret and resentment fester underneath. If anyone tells you love is easy, they’re lying.
Love is personal—there’s no universality to it and two people in love possess it in different forms. Does that make any iteration better or stronger than the next? Is the love between a man and woman more powerful/acceptable/honest than that of a man/man or woman/woman? What about familial love or the potentially crippling bond we form with pets? You cannot draw a line because your heart will reject it every time. So while Theodore is initially tentative in publicly acknowledging his girlfriend is an OS, how impossible is it to accept such an emotional connection could exist? Samantha may not feel the sun, breathe the cool brisk air of winter, or know the taste of a kiss, but she has the capacity to think, learn, and understand. What makes us human: our cognitive functioning or flesh?
It’s a challenging idea to reconcile—one Jonze effortlessly infuses into a relatable love story rather than overpower with stark, alienating philosophy. Like his aesthetic in Being John Malkovich, Her exists as a parallel dimension rather than collective idea of “future”. If not for the technological improvements with A.I. or intriguing concepts like Theodore’s occupation—a service offering professionally scribed letters between loved ones manufactured to look and sound as though handwritten by the customer—one could argue this world is from the past. The earth tones, hiked up trousers over bellybuttons, and old school hairstyles, moustaches, and glasses frames create a warm sense of belonging much like Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go. This familiarity allows its science fiction to appear as contemporary reality, helping us treat its heightened ideas as truth rather than fiction.
Theodore and Samantha’s love isn’t some clinical problem to solve as a result, but instead a natural evolution of our society’s growing ability to accept the virtual as real. Jonze bridges the gap with humor through a videogame character Theodore befriends on his escapist journey from his couch, showing us what we do now in order to comprehend its next step forward. He provides the naysayers (Catherine), the open-minded (Amy), and the implicitly accepting (Chris Pratt’s friend/co-worker Paul) so we may see Theodore work through his own trepidation and confusion as he weighs outside perceptions with his own. It’s a process that echoes the bigotry and homophobia still running rampant in our own less than peaceful world as the best sci-fi always thinly veils our present. And Her is most definitely worthy of such categorization.
While the aesthetic, concept, and themes go a long way to ensure we let Jonze’s important message through, his vehicle is less the movie than Phoenix’s performance. Originally rendered opposite Samantha Morton (she gave her blessing for Johansson’s re-casting after Spike discovered something missing during editing), Phoenix’s unabashed honesty and vulnerability comes from a place not unlike Theodore himself. He never saw Morton during filming so that he could create the emotional connection necessary for pure authenticity of character. He feels the laughter of her jokes, the overwhelming gut-punch when she doesn’t immediately answer his call, and the satiating pleasure of orgasm Jonze brilliantly fades to black so we too can only hear rather than see their powerful love. Phoenix is alternatingly devastating, endearingly pathetic, introverted, and subtly confident, beautifully translating this implausible situation as inevitable.
Would it have worked with Morton? I don’t know. However, I can’t imagine this film without Johansson’s performance bringing Samantha to life. I regret laughing at her Best Actress win at the Rome Film Festival now because her voice gives this character three-dimensionality despite emanating from a pocketbook Smartphone. She makes Phoenix laugh, cry, and long with nothing more than cadence and tone manifesting facial expressions and mannerisms in our minds and his. And her evolution—the heart-wrenching reality of how different these two are in exactly the opposite way you’re probably thinking—is an emotionally revelatory discovery unlike anything else this year. In the end, Her isn’t about Theodore and Samantha. It’s about Theodore and Samantha. Indelibly changed, their devotion teaches a modification of that old adage: you cannot love until you know yourself.
 Copyright: ©2013 UNTITLED RICK HOWARD COMPANY LLC. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures. Caption: JOAQUIN PHOENIX as Theodore in the romantic drama “HER,” directed by Spike Jonze, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
 Copyright: ©2013 UNTITLED RICK HOWARD COMPANY LLC. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures. Caption: (L-r) AMY ADAMS as Amy, MATT LETSCHER as Charles and JOAQUIN PHOENIX as Theodore in the romantic drama “HER,” directed by Spike Jonze, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
 Copyright: ©2013 UNTITLED RICK HOWARD COMPANY LLC. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures. Caption: (L-r) JOAQUIN PHOENIX as Theodore and ROONEY MARA as Catherine in the romantic drama “HER,” directed by Spike Jonze, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.