The other night, my best friend Joe and I were watching Frances Ha. There’s a line where the titular character, played by Greta Gerwig, looks at her best friend (Mickey Sumner) and says something along the lines of “I love you, even though you love your phone that has email more than me.” Joe poked me in the foot and looked at me, and we shared one of those knowing moments between friends where we both knew what the other was thinking. It is true; I am a product of my generation, in the midst of a love affair with my phone and, in general, the internet. But to say that my addiction to social media is frivolous is missing the point and missing the complexities that go along with it. Which brings us to Spike Jonze’s newest film Her, a film as much about relationships as it is about introspection and technology, and how the two intertwine with one another in a passionate, sensual dance.
Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is equipped with an almost comical mustache, pants hiked up to the peak of Mount Everest, and a weary face that communicates the desire for honest intimacy but is hesitant to actually give it. Living in a Los Angeles from the future that resembles Tokyo in some respects, technology is at an interesting point: think of it as perhaps two or three steps from where we are now, something achievable enough that those of you reading this will probably experience it in good time. The purchase and installation of a new operating system gets the story rolling: for, unlike our current oh so cooperative OS’s, OS1 is sentient. And her name is Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).
Phoenix’s Twombly is a character that is fully fleshed out enough to have the texture needed to sympathize with him, even empathize, and yet his situation seems “every man” enough so that he becomes easily identifiable and easy to identify with. His job requires that he writes “handwritten” letters to people in lieu of the client writing it themselves. These letters are intimate, beautiful, and nothing short of poetic. Theodore Twombly, for all of his insecurities, is a poet, a writer whose mind is stuck, for better and/or worse, in the romantic mindset. That he does have such a way with words makes the dorky awkwardness less jarring and, in fact, more realistic. His awkwardness, and the way that Phoenix plays him, is not a crutch in the character, something that is so ingrained in how the character is written that it prevents any other element of his personality to stand out. Phoenix’s mesmerizing performance is layered and nuance, a triumph in balancing the insecurities and anxieties of a human being, not merely a character. Unlike many other actors, Phoenix doesn’t play awkward or anxious or “that guy with intimacy issues”; he is able to fully inhabit them and give himself over to Twombly.
Johansson on the other hand has a difficult role. Her unique, velvet torn voice has to do all the acting. Not must it be emotive, but it must be able to communicate a wide range of ideas that Jonze himself needs to convey throughout the film. She pulls this off with flying colors, seducing the audience as much as she does Phoenix. There are numerous scenes which, if I were to describe them, would sound ridiculous and rather stupid, but Johansson makes them work. Not only her, of course, both she and Phoenix work back and forth, complementing one another (despite the fact that Samantha Morton was the original voice of Samantha) and their performance. Like a relationship, the two seem in tune with one another, every beat and every word making sense. The rawness in Samantha’s voice adds a sense of vulnerability and nakedness, painting the portrait of a woman with no body in full form regardless. When Johansson sings the soft, beautiful lullaby “The Moon Song” (penned by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O), her voice breaks throughout, an occurrence which speckles the film. This minute detail is important: it may be a natural element to the actress’s voice, but that crack is almost an indication of pain let go, manifested in reality as a form of catharsis. It is one of the best moves that one could make in order to make the audience trust the character.
Only a few paragraphs into this review, I have wanted to use the phrase “so that he is real”, but I suppose the ideas of what makes something “real” or not is part of the film’s points: why does it matter? What is surprising about the film, for all of its humor and commentary, is that it seems to remain uncynical about its subject matter. Initially upon hearing about the project a year or so ago, the thought of “a man falls in love with his Siri-like OS” struck me a self-righteous comedy about the dangers of obsession and addiction. But what Spike Jonze presents to use is something rawer and more honest. He doesn’t lecture us. He, instead, fights for both sides, possibly even ending on the side of legitimizing the relationship people have with technology. It is undeniable; technology changes us, and the way that we interact with it has become more complex than ever before. So if it is real for the user, isn’t that all that should matter?
I like Twitter and Tumblr a lot. During high school, I did not really have anyone to talk to film with except for Joe. The internet is where I found my community of now incredible friends. I have some other friends who think this is strange, but how is it any less organic than fostering a friendship any other way? And how inorganic or organic would it be were I to fall for someone over that medium? What’s the difference, besides being “a million miles away”? It feels just as real. Isn’t that what matters?
What Jonze may be saying is that connectivity, as long as one understands the transience of it in all forms, personal or technological, is not a bad thing. Twombly’s ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) is in the film, and that they are no longer together seems to be indicative of the transience of human relationships, making Twombly’s relationship with Samantha, his OS, just as “real”. Twombly’s friend Amy (Amy Adams, who deserves more recognition for this than for American Hustle) develops a friendship with her OS, and, although she is initially bewildered at this, the relationship and dynamic starts to fit like a glove.
Jonze, aside from not lecturing the audience about the dangers of technology, however satirical the material might come off, also does not bother to ruminate too heavily on the “technology as sentient being” thing, at least not in a traditional way. Samantha is amazed at her own growth and evolution, and while she occasionally becomes introspective about that, there’s a naturalism about it that does not seem forced.
The glow of the film that bounces off every not-too-futuristic surface is not limited to the cinematography, but also shows itself in Arcade Fire’s score. Giving the film a central warmth that seems to bring everything full circle, the band, whose recent album Reflektor seems at times a fitting companion, imbues some life into the film. Karen O’s sweet and melancholic “The Moon Song” completes everything. The film is magical, with a quality that should beguile even the most cynical person.
So much of the film, thus, is dedicated to the introspection one is prone to in moments of loneliness. Theodor examines his life and his failed marriage; Samantha considers her own evolution and feelings; Amy, open minded, watches as her life falls apart. That introspection manifests itself in the minutest of details. Jonze and cinematographer Hoyte van Hpytema pay close attention to the details and anomalies, from the flying specs of dust in the air to the falling droplets of water in the shower. Without being overbearingly stylistic, the pastel painted, iPhone C-looking LA and the film’s ability to key into what matters within the scene gives the film an added texture to introspection. Each character, as they go through their mess, focus on a detail and an anxiety. Distance from those situations allow a certain about of introspection, and watching the characters think and consider their lives makes the viewer consider their own relationships and how “real” they are and how much that matters to them.
There was a certain amount of worry in me that the fact that Samantha was an OS, essentially an object, would mean that her character would be owned by Phoenix. On the contrary, Jonze (and Johansson) seem to make sure that the film has Samantha establish her independence. She is, like the growingly snarky Siri, not entirely subservient, and becomes more independent as the film goes on. IT continues to illustrate her not merely as a computer voice, but as a person; not belonging to anyone but herself.
Jonze plays this relationship between Theodor and Samantha straight. It is not particularly funny nor does it warrant a great deal amount of laughter, at least in terms of how the concept is executed. The way the two interact with one another certainly invites laughter. It can often be refreshing in its sense of humor. But it is real. The dialogue, the situations, the natural evolution of emotions, the obstacles, distance, closeness, etc. It is a relationship more elaborately and minutely detailed than a majority of relationships portrayed on film and television. Watching the warmth and tenderness and intimacy of Her is like watching the greatest romance in ages. Most importantly, you feel it in your soul. By the end, the relationship feels so real that it hits you like a sucker punch to the stomach. Her is destined to go down in history as one of the greatest cinematic romances of all time.
There have been accusations in the past that Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation is based on her short lived relationship with Spike Jonze. That film is another look at alienation, intimacy, and introspection. Her could quite possibly be Jonze’s Lost in Translation, both in the way that it could be based on his relationship with Coppola and in the fact that they are both masterpieces. As the film was drawing to a close, a steady cascade of tears rolled down my face to the point where I had to stifle myself from sobbing really hard in the theater. Few films have felt so personal, to me and to the director. Few films can so immaculately channel and portray romance in all of its hesitance and honesty and beauty. It sweeps one off their feet effortlessly. Its relationship to technology ceases to matter, as you have fallen in love with the story. It may have just become my favorite film of the year. Like falling in love, Her is intoxicating. And the romance in Her is as real as anything you could want. Maybe what the film is saying is, “The only affair that matters is the one that means the most to you.”
“The Moon Song” – Karen O