Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Joahnsson, Amy Adams, Chris Pratt, Rooney Mara and Olivia Wilde
Directed by Spike Jonze
From Warner Bros. Pictures
Opens Jan. 10
By Michael Clawson of Terminal Volume
I'm going to say something kinda nutty and audacious, so brace yourself: Her features the most heartbreaking movie romance since Casablanca.
Yes, Her's intricate power play of heartache, loss and existential exile from love is comparable to Ilsa and Rick's devastating acceptance of love's victory in Casablanca, a movie that has, over countless decades, come to symbolize the momentous weight of the heart's needs and desires.
Her is directed with beautiful resonance by Spike Jonze, a soft spoken and gentle director, whose careful personality and soft presence must be inviting to actors. How else would someone get this kind of performance from Joaquin Phoenix? He's so delicate and vulnerable that he spends the whole movie in a suspended state of shattering.
Phoenix plays Theodore, a nebbish wimp who sits in a cathedral-like office and writes poetic love letters for other people. Technically, though, he doesn't even write them; he speaks the letters out loud and his computer transcribes his words into a handwritten font. In the movie's quasi-sci-fi universe, even love is outsourced to others. After a modern Apple-like reveal, a new cell phone operating system hits the market. Theodore downloads it, answers three simple questions and in chimes Samantha, his personalized operating system voice. She's no Siri: her voice is smooth and measured, and her responses show personality and grace. The voice is played by Scarlett Johansson, though we never once see her. It might be one of the single greatest voice casting performances in the history of the cinema. Hyperbole much? See the movie and disagree with me; I dare you.
Samantha begins by making Theodore's life more organized. She spell checks his emails, responds to his divorce attorney and streamlines his appointments. But she's more than a digital assistant — she's attentive to his needs, she can hear fluctuations in his voice that might indicate concern or worry, and she has a personality. One of the great mysteries of the film is trying to decide if she was programmed this way, or if she naturally learned, through her artificial intelligence, to show her user so much compassion.
The movie takes place in the not-so-distant future, but it is only barely science fiction. One can make all kinds of pointed accusations about the film's intentions, but I don't think it's an indictment on our reliance of technology. It certainly makes the case that we depend on our phones and the Internet too much, but I think the soul of the movie resides in its central pairing — the human Theodore and the discombobulated voice of Samantha.
Of course Theodore falls in love with Samantha. More surprisingly is how Samantha falls for him. They share long discussions in bed, in his living room, on the beach and out in the city, where other people are also cooing intimate whispers with the earpieces socketed into their heads. The world is accepting of their courtship, at least as accepting as Japanese culture is with people marrying video game characters or body pillows — odd, but harmless. (Speaking of Japan, this will remind you heavily of Lost in Translation, another movie about love and longing with Johansson.) At one point Theodore and Samantha go on a date with another human couple, and it works simpler than you'd think: Theodore's cell phone is propped up so Samantha can "see" and she becomes an active participant in conversations. It's essentially a conference call. And when Theodore walks around he pins a safety pin in his shirt pocket, like a booster seat for Samantha's digital eye. It's kinda cute.
Sex is handled in an interesting way — it's basically phone sex. Later in the film, Samantha wants to provide Theodore with a deeper, more physical encounter so she hires a sex surrogate who serves as her body. Theodore is flattered, but it feels like cheating, so he backs out. The real woman, impressed with their commitment, can only sob with envy. It's a strange world they all occupy.
Like Ilsa and Rick, this relationship has limits that neither can sustain, or want to. One has to leave, to where they do not know, but it's uncharted territory. Her's conclusion, neither set in stone nor ambiguous, is gratifying because … well, of course this is how it had to end. In a movie about connections — how we connect and to whom — this script finds all the right balances when it comes to organic versus electrical, real versus artificial, spoken versus unspoken. I was not entirely stunned when I saw that Jonze had written it as well as directed it. It looks exactly like the kind of movie a director who has already made Adaptation, Being John Malkovich and Where the Wild Things Are would make — one of profound presence. (Let me also suggest Jonze fans check out his sci-fi short, I'm Here, which shares some of Her's central themes.)
And let me reiterate how phenomenal Phoenix and Johansson are: they are simply breathtaking. I razz Johansson a lot for taking so many stupid movies, but here she is simply perfect. For the performance to work, we have to fall for her voice. For me, that happened almost instantly. It has just the right timbre; a little scratchy, but curious, sexy and devastatingly precise in mood, tone and speed. Phoenix has more at stake — a voice and a face — and he keeps up. To think, this guy almost retired, or "retired."
Now, I said this movie is comparable to Casablanca. While the two movies vary greatly, they contain one central driving mechanism: love is as much letting go as it is holding on. Both can be painful. Both can be exhilarating. Rarely are they both at the same time.