Movie Review: “Her”

Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara
Spike Jonze

It’s a pity that “Her” is rated R, because tweens and teens could learn a lot from it. (Note to parents: while your kids should see this movie, they shouldn’t see it with you, because it’s occasionally naughty, and you’ll both feel embarrassed watching it together.) Writer/director Spike Jonze uses a fantastical premise – a computer operating system that people can interact with like they would another human being – to deliver sharp commentary about the importance of the human touch in the Catfish era, where online relationships carry the same weight as a physical relationship. As an added bonus, he points out just how messed up we are as a species, and how lucky any of us are to make a meaningful connection with another person.

After a year-long separation, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is still stinging from his impending divorce from Catherine (Rooney Mara). Eager to make some kind of emotional connection but still gun shy about getting involved with someone, he buys a new operating system for his computer that comes with an interactive, self-aware voice program. He chooses a female voice named Samantha (Scarlett Johannson). Samantha helps Theodore organize his life in ways he would never have been capable of doing himself, and she’s eager to learn more about Theodore as a person and what it’s like to be human in general. Theodore is seduced by Samantha’s thoughtfulness and reassuring voice, and finds himself turning down potential couplings with real women in favor of spending more time with Samantha. Eventually, Theodore considers Samantha his girlfriend. This makes Samantha happy and, eager to be more than just a voice in his earpiece, she decides to take things to the next level. Considering the fact that she doesn’t have a body, her efforts to consummate the relationship are curious, to say the least.

Many movie critics, including our own Jason Zingale, have written about how motion capture work (i.e. Andy Serkis’ work in the “Lord of the Rings” movies and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”) should be considered no different than a performance by any other actor, and that all work is award-worthy. I’d like to go one further here and nominate Scarlett Johannson for Best Actress for her voice work in “Her.” She doesn’t appear in the movie, and she didn’t even see Joaquin Phoenix on the set while shooting the movie, which is all the more reason why her performance should be considered at awards time. On-screen actors have the benefit of developing chemistry and timing with their castmates; Johannson, meanwhile, did her work here all on her own, and it’s arguably the best work she’s ever done. Throughout the course of the movie, Samantha blossoms like some naïve superintelligence, and Johannson nails the transition from playful and curious to worldly and wise.

In fact, her work here is so good that she puts her “human” counterparts to shame. Phoenix is a great actor, but he’s dealt a tough hand here. Theodore is a mess, and while that is normally the stuff of Oscar gold, his character is too wishy-washy to make a favorable impression. Amy Adams and Olivia Wilde offer support in a glorified cameo kind of way, but the only person who stands up to Johannson is Mara, the ex-wife that Samantha wants to replace. (She only has one scene with dialogue, but she makes it count.) “Her” also benefits from a beautiful score by Arcade Fire, and a wonderfully silly side gag involving a Wii-type game that Theodore plays in his spare time that forces him to interact with a foul-mouthed alien boy.

“Her” is Jonze’s first screenplay credit, and you can see the influence of Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter of Jonze’s “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation.” Kaufman was careful to keep his absurdist ideas tethered to the ground, and Jonze does the same here. In addition, Jonze has crafted a story line that is both timely (the Manti Te’o story broke shortly after production on “Her” finished, serving as the ultimate example of life imitating art) while cautioning against potential technological and emotional pitfalls that lie ahead. It’s smart, thought provoking, and one of the year’s best films. Now please shut down your laptop and go talk to someone face to face for a while.