The trailers for Spike Jonze’s Her are misleading. They admit upfront that the plot involves the love relationship that develops between a lonely man and a computer-operating system. But they allow the misapprehension that Her is a kind of satire, an interpersonal dystopian fable. The lead character (Joaquin Phoenix) is presented as a sweet and “antisocial” nerd in these previews. Even his name, Theodore Twombley, broadcasts a Dickension two-dimensionality: He’s stock, a convenient mark for a director interested in presenting a near-future farce of love in the digital age.
Fortunately, writer-director Jonze has a bit more heart than that. In fact, Twombley is not merely some sheltered dork. He is a capable, sensitive man going through a difficult divorce from a woman woven into the fabric of his life and identity. Sure, he now spends too much time with video games and Internet porn; but he’s also mature and self-aware enough to joke about that very fact with his close friends. Yes, he has friends. He even has fans. At work—he is a well-regarded employee at a service that writes personal letters for clients—he is something of a minor superstar. So, what comes across in the previews as awkwardness and inexperience is rather the hesitance of too much and too recent experience. Twombley is heartbroken.
Phoenix is best known for far more extreme portrayals, from incestuous emperors to the Man in Black. He’s a talented and eccentric performer from whom we expect intensity. As Twombley, Phoenix finds another type of challenge, which he more than meets. Here, he must create a character we can believe capable of well-intentioned failure, and for whom we, yet, hold out hope. He does so with great grace and seeming ease.
Twombley’s relationship with Samantha, as the operating system names herself, is intensely believable. It is both touching and embarrassing to watch—or to listen to—the intimacies of this couple. Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson (the voice of the OS) nail the tenor of private interactions between couples. The “You’re too funny” that signifies, must signify, something nonliteral, at a joke that simply isn’t that funny; the almost clairvoyant sensitivity to a lover’s lie or evasion. (This is particularly impressive, as the role of Samantha originally was played by actress Samantha Morton and recast and redubbed after wrap, when Jonze felt something was off.)
What appeared in previews to be a strain of the cranky—and usually unbearably strident, judgy and falsely pro-anthropic, IMHO—“Put down the iPhone and live life!” gripe, is something deeper. Something deeper and sadder. It’s a meditation on self and change, on personal evolution and the emotional attachments that enrich, promote and inhibit such evolution. (The English philosopher Alan Watts, who had much to say on such things, makes an odd, fun cameo .)
Her is a bit thinky, a bit slow. It’s consistently gorgeous visually (Holy cow! The cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema, who also shot The Fighter and Let the Right One In . . . incredible). But, in contrast to what the trailers might have you think, it’s not at all snarky or satirical. If you’d like something that pokes fun at online dating or the false intimacies of Facebook, for example, look elsewhere. The heart of Her is not to be found in computer science. Look to an older code: grammar. The movie’s title is an object. But, as Twombley and we discover, Samantha is—each of our lovers is—a subject. This is the beautiful difficulty of love and the difficult beauty of the realization arrived at by all lovers, and it is this that Jonze so affectingly explores.