In a year of Glassholes, smartphone trolling and an explosion in the amount of attention paid to artificially intelligent or robotic technologies, “Her” offers a safe and inviting image of a technology-obsessed future. The new Spike Jonze feature, while getting the details of how most humans actually interact with technology completely wrong, still manages to charm and excite the audience with one of the best and most fascinating romance stories in recent memory.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a former magazine writer who now crafts letters for a service called BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com. Recently divorced (Theodore is charged by his wife with being unable to handle “real emotion”), Theodore seems to stumble through life; he cycles through melancholy songs on his phone; he puts off actually signing his divorce papers; every day, he walks at the same meandering, slow pace from his job back to his apartment in a gray, hazy near-future Los Angeles.
When Theodore purchases a fully intelligent operating system, he meets Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), the metaphorically wide-eyed computer with whom he falls in love. The foundations of their relationship — her (literally) endless curiosity about humans and the world and his deep insecurities resulting from his recent breakup — are the real focus of the movie, with the high-concept premise of “man falls for machine” setting the scene.
Looking past the film’s presentation of technology as completely unrelated to a profit motive, or past the film’s “IKEA-display-come-to-life” futuristic urban aesthetic, Jonze’s love story is genuine and heartfelt, with sharp, poignant dialogue reminiscent of that in “Annie Hall” or “Harold and Maude.”
“Her” also succeeds by addressing the audience’s obvious initial questions head-on — how do a man and his computer girlfriend have sex? What are the complications of a limited physical relationship? How do other people react? In both answering these questions and giving Theodore more screen time to sort out his deep feelings for Samantha’s wit, thoughtfulness and inquisitive nature, “Her” is a classic love story with a unique, technological twist.
Parallel to Theodore and Samantha’s relationship in the film is the dissolution of the marriage of Theodore’s best friend, Amy (Amy Adams). In Amy’s case, her husband’s general stubbornness and arrogance push her to become more comfortable with the work she chooses to pursue on her own. As Theodore becomes more and more wrapped up in Samantha and her supportive, friendly charm, Amy drifts in a different direction, using her own operating system as a crutch to help navigate both her work as a video game developer and her life without her husband.
While these love stories are deep and complex and wonderful in a way that most so-called romance movies of the last decade are profoundly not, Jonze’s general conception of techno-human interaction is completely off-base.
To begin with, technology is made to produce a profit. In Jonze’s post-advertising, noncorporate world, an operating system like Samantha seems unlike anything we’d encounter in our own. When Google and Apple sell us Android and iOS products, they come with the baggage of developer apps and the limitations of designing functional tech in a world of “One Weird Trick” ads and clunky paywalls.
Additionally, in Jonze’s world everyone uses a computer without a keypad (which, as I’ve noted elsewhere, is actually the biggest downside to present-day imaginations of futuristic tech) and there are seemingly no consequences of the constant environmental degradation that is happening in the present day. The biggest flaw of “Her” is that while the film’s premise sets up the great romance unfurling onscreen, the same premise is weighed down by its attachment to a particular aesthetic rather than anything humans actually might experience in such a vision of the future.
While this movie doesn’t offer much that’s new in terms of commentary on human interpersonal connection, watching Jonze, Phoenix and Johansson go through the familiar motions of falling in and out of love is perhaps the best thing in American cinema of 2013.