It’s admittedly absurd to complain that Her, from writer-director Spike Jonze, is a little talky.
After all, this ambitious romantic drama, set in a future Los Angeles, is largely about the conversations between a lovelorn writer named Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and an artificially intelligent operating system named Samantha (the voice of Scarlett Johansson). When the movie begins, she’s pretty much a next-generation Siri, but soon the two have wholly, convincingly, fallen for each other.
It is the convincing aspect that is Her’s true achievement. Part of this is due to Johansson’s remarkable vocal performance – there is a yearning for intimacy in her tone that makes Samantha unmistakably human – but it’s also in the meticulous manner in which Jonze and his production team have created this vaguely recognizable world. Their L.A. has its own distinct style: curved architecture, high-waisted pants, un-ironic mustaches. The overall color scheme consists of faded pastel hues, sort of like candy hearts that have gotten old and lost their pop. It’s at once wistful and full of possibility – the type of place where a wounded heart (Theodore is divorced) might just find true love with a machine.
The color scheme consists of faded pastel hues, like candy hearts that have gotten old and lost their pop.
Even before Samantha appears, Theodore’s life largely depends on gadgets. Sure, he has friends (including an excellent Amy Adams as a frazzled neighbor), but mostly he talks to the avatars in the video games he plays or to the smartphone-like device he carries in his pocket. “Play a different melancholy song,” he murmurs on his way home when the first track chosen doesn’t quite match his doleful mood.
Enter Samantha, who instantly becomes an intuitive companion, and then something more. In fact, Samantha’s distinguishing characteristic is her desire to evolve – to be in real relationship with Theodore, which may be more than they both bargained for. Her is no grim, anti-tech dystopia, but neither does it bow before the throne of invention. The movie understands that as much as technology may enhance our lives, it won’t be able to save us – or our relationships.
Outside of this notion and the accompanying, futuristic milieu, though, this is a fairly familiar relationship picture. The many conversations between Theodore and Samantha – whether they’re flirtations, declarations of love or exasperated arguments – hit beats that movie lovers have hit many times before. Compared in particular to Jonze’s previous features – especially my beloved Where the Wild Things Are – Her could be described with an incongruous phrase that nonetheless fits: it’s inventively formulaic.