Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 4, 2014)
For the latest from director Spike Jonze, we find 2013’s Her. Set in the not-too-distant future, we meet Theodore Twombley (Joaquin Phoenix), a man who writes “personal letters” for others to send to each other. His wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) left him a year earlier, and this changed Theodore from happy and fun to sullen and isolated. His friends set him up on dates but he remains too depressed for these to go anywhere.
Into Theodore’s mopey life steps a new computer operating system that boasts active, learning artificial intelligence. After he picks his parameters, he gets a sexy female “partner” who names herself Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Despite the fact she doesn’t really exist, Theodore falls in love with her, and she feels the same way. We follow their unlikely romance and its repercussions.
If you look at Spike Jonze’s filmography, you’ll find movies that shouldn’t work but do. Being John Malkovich came with the most absurd of absurd premises, but Jonze managed to make it clever and amusing, and Where the Wild Things Are adapted a short, simple children’s story into something more expansive and emotionally involving.
Going into Her, I felt the same as I did when I first watched Malkovich: it sounded idiotic. However, I figured that if anyone could pull off such a dopey premise, it would be Jonze; he’d given us too much quality material in the past for me to doubt him.
Alas, Jonze’s magic touch fails him in the limp, slow Her, though this doesn’t become clear for a while. Through much of the film’s first act, it shows potential. Jonze depicts the roots of Theodore’s sadness in a tasteful manner and draws us into its near-future world in a compelling way.
However, almost as soon as Samantha enters the picture, it starts to go downhill. My first complaint may be my own hang-up, but I honestly find it next to impossible to suspend disbelief and accept that a man falls in love with a disembodied voice that he knows comes from an artificial source.
Yes, I realize that folks become smitten with people they’ve never met and can develop love via phone calls or online chats, but there’s one key difference: the two sides understand that true humans reside on both ends. Granted, they don’t have guarantees that their partners are who they say they are – hello, Catfish! – but at least they know actual people exist. This makes it tough for me to swallow that someone – even a sad sack like Theodore – could give himself so fully to a bunch of 0s and 1s.
All of this connects to another problem with Her: its obvious social commentary. The movie bludgeons us with its view that people have become increasingly disconnected from the world around them. The movie constantly shows folks absorbed in their own little technological worlds, and when we do see human interaction, it’s often strained and distant.
I get it: technology is making us more disconnected from each other and we might as well fall in love with our iPhones. Jonze depicts this point without much subtlety, and it gets tedious before too long.
On the other hand, in something of a “have his cake and eat it too”, Jonze feels reluctant to come down too hard on the “alternate lifestyle” portrayed in the movie, so he gives off a “who are we to judge?” vibe. And that’s fine – hey, if people want to marry their laptops, I don’t care.
Unfortunately, this wishy-washiness leaves the movie without much of a core. It can’t seem to decide if it wants to bemoan the distance technology brings to our lives or if it wants to celebrate the expanded horizons that come with new gizmos. That leaves it treading water and without any kind of intellectual or emotional clarity.
I could probably forgive these areas if Her wasn’t so damned boring most of the time. Character and plot development remain nil through much of the film, so it feels like we get little more than two hours of Theodore’s conversations with a disembodied voice as he wanders LA.
Do we learn much that makes Theodore an interesting character? Nope – he’s dull and mopey at the start and he’s dull and slightly less mopey at the end. Does Samantha develop into a compelling personality of her own? Nope – she comes across like HAL from 2001 with a sexier voice.
This makes Her a slow, uninvolving ride to nowhere. It never threatens to create compelling personalities, involving situations or incisive social commentary. Instead, it ends up as silly and self-involved. I expect more from Spike Jonze but can’t find much to like in this banal effort.