The movies and videos of Spike Jonze are full of memorable moments, but perhaps the definitive illustration of what separates Jonze from his peers is the final shot of Björk’s “It’s Oh So Quiet” video (1995).
The video’s clever concept—an entire small-town main street takes to dance, inspired by the singer—has already been well-executed. By the video’s final moments, Björk is dancing in formation with dozens of townspeople; the video could have ended there, and it would still have been a classic. Before the video ends, though, Björk starts to rise: the camera holding steady on her face, she lifts up and above the town, smiling in ecstasy. That’s the Jonze twist: start with a good idea, carry it off extremely well, and then take it to the next level.
The Jonze twist in Her comes midway through the film, when Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) finally admits to a friend that he’s fallen in love with his computer’s operating system—that, in fact, his OS is the “girlfriend” he’s been telling people about. Even in the near-future universe of Her, this is weird—but his friend, after a pause, just shrugs. Stranger things have happened. The film then proceeds with the understanding that the people who care about Theodore aren’t going to judge him for his choice.
That understanding separates Her from the many man-machine romance stories that have preceded it, from Data’s liaisons in Star Trek: The Next Generation (“I am…fully functional”) to Ryan Gosling’s public relationship with a sex doll in Lars and the Real Girl (2007). Though Theodore’s e-girlfriend Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) seems very up-to-the-moment in the Siri era, the idea of a PC becoming romantically involved with a user goes back at least to Electric Dreams, the 1984 film that imagined a love triangle among a programmer, a cellist, and a CPU.
That film actually wasn’t bad, but it ended in predictable Hollywood fashion, violent confrontation and all. With Her, Jonze trusts the audience to let the story breathe; instead of a moralistic tale about a repressed guy who needs to toss his technology, it becomes an exploration of the very nature of love—and loss.
Jonze is best-known for his collaborations with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich and Adaptation); Jonze wrote Her himself, but interestingly, the Kaufman film it most closely resembles in tone and theme is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, directed not by Jonze but by Michel Gondry. Like Sunshine, Her combines a wistful, unashamedly romantic style with dry humor.
Though Her doesn’t have the sophisticated plot construction that one would expect from Kaufman, Jonze supplies this simple story with achingly lyrical words and images. Theodore’s occupation is writing love letters for hire; that’s a minefield for any screenwriter to embark upon, but Jonze makes it work by keeping Theodore’s letters prosaic. Jonze and his character both understand that in love (as in filmmaking), details matter more than grand gestures.
There aren’t many grand gestures in Her, but the film as a whole is a sweepingly impressive display of style and restraint. Working with a carefully controlled palette and texture, Jonze brings us into a soft-edged future world with beautiful but deliberately vague geography. The understated score by Arcade Fire creates a sympathetic bed for Theodore’s quiet fumblings toward a lasting emotional connection.
Phoenix is superb in a role that makes good use of his talent for creating characters who are uneasy in their own bodies. Behind a brushy mustache, he plays Theodore so modestly that we never feel manipulated. The women in his life aren’t quite as well-calibrated; both his ex-wife (Rooney Mara) and his BFF (Amy Adams) seem too forthrightly sexy to be soulmates with the self-effacing Theodore. As Samantha, the husky-voiced Johansson is so seductive that it’s almost a joke, but a joke that’s not as funny-ha-ha as it might have been in the years before Minneapolis airport trams started sounding like Elizabeth Hurley.
Though the premise of Her is well-worn in fantasy literature, it’s rarely been handled so movingly—because like many of the best sci-fi movies (2001, the original Solaris), Her is less concerned with the lofty, often unrealistic hopes we have for our technology than with the lofty, often unrealistic hopes we have for our relationships.