In the not too distant future of Spike Jonze’s “Her” technology has made major leaps, fashion senses have eroded, and Hollywood’s cynical views of relationships have remained the same. Loaded with ambition and lauded by many as the best movie of 2013, “Her” incorporates a familiar science-fiction concept into what is more or less a love story and relational study. But it’s far from conventional or cliché. That said, it isn’t a film free of problems which (for me) ultimately keep it from being the modern day masterpiece that some are touting it as.
The story revolves around Theodore Twombley (Joaquin Phoenix), a nerdy introvert who works as a letter writer for people who have a hard time sharing their feeling. Theodore is a lonely soul. He’s currently involved in divorce proceedings from his first wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) and he hasn’t been able to get out of his ever-present state of melancholy. He has practically no social life and outside of his longtime friend Aimee (Amy Adams), there is no significant person in his life.
Theodore’s life takes a strange and unexpected turn when he purchases a new operating system for his computer. But this is no Windows XP. It is an adaptive artificial intelligence that evolves and takes on its own personality. The OS (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) goes by the name Samantha and soon develops a very personal and intimate relationship with Theodore. Samantha begins to fill the lonely void in Theodore’s life while he becomes her window to a new and exciting world. But the reality that she is an operating system causes him to wrestle with the legitimacy of their relationship.
The science-fiction mainly serves as a subtle backdrop with the exception of the familiar idea of computers becoming sentient. But Jonze deserves credit. He’s really doing a lot more here than first looks might reveal. He takes an interesting look at our infatuation with our gadgets and where that could perceivably lead us in the future. There is also a strong focus on communication or lack thereof. The film shows us several relationships that struggle due to the poor abilities to communicate. And speaking of struggles, prepare for a lot of them. In Jonze’s gloomy view of love, nearly every relationship struggles and has a rare hope for survival.
On the other hand, it’s the rich and unbridled conversations between Theodore and Samantha that causes their relationship to flourish. There are so many scenes of them just talking about simple things that may seem inconsequential but that are vital to making a relationship work. Phoenix is amazing and completely wraps himself up in his character. He displays an enormous range of feelings with such realistic fervor. And Johansson shows why voice work is deserving of more attention than it’s given. Her voice is sultry and sexy but it’s also warm and vulnerable. These two show a deep and growing attraction, yet even here we see Jonze use a little bait and switch.
But while I really appreciate Jonze’s originality and I love being challenged by deeper thought-provoking approaches, there were a handful of things that kept me from fully embracing this as a great film. First there is the movie’s glacial pacing specifically in the second half. The aforementioned conversations between Theodore and Samantha are good at first, but they reach a point where they no longer move the story along. The countless closeup shots of Phoenix laying on a pillow talking to Samantha well after their love has been established grew a bit tiresome. This only slowed things down for a movie that already had a calculated and deliberate pace.
The film also contains some unneeded scenes that added little to the movie. Olivia Wilde pops up as Theodore’s blind date. While her presence had a purpose, she was a very flimsy, throwaway character. There is also a weird scene where Samantha calls on a surrogate to serve as her physical body in order to be intimate with Theodore. It’s an intentionally uncomfortable scene laced with a touch of dark humor. But as it plays out things get sloppy especially with the surrogate character herself. And then there are these occasional odd tone-shattering attempts at humor. One involves a lewd act with a dead cat’s tail and the other features a cartoony video game character who suddenly spews a river of obscenities. This silly juvenile humor came across as cheap and both scenes felt completely out of place.
I wish I could toss aside those complaints because “Her” does many things right. It asks some great questions and it certainly allows for a variety of interpretations. For example take the ending. Depending on your interpretation it could be a very light and hopeful ending or a very dark and depressing one. I liked that. I love the work we get from Phoenix and Johansson and Rooney Mara’s character added a deeper emotional twist that I really responded to. But the film’s cynicism, the constant lingering of the second half, and some questionable script choices hurt my experience. It’s one of the few movies that captivated me yet had me checking my watch before it was done. Ultimately that’s a disappointing combination that pushed me away a bit.
Good review Keith. It’s a sweet, beautifully-told romance that embraces its odd relationship at the center, but never makes it seem too weird.
I’ll agree with you there. At no point does the relationship feel weird. It sounds preposterous but while watching it you never look at it that way.
Aw man, this is a little disappointing, but to each reviewer their own opinion!!! The blogging world is so great!!
The only point here I can really agree with (aside from the positives you mentioned, obviously hehe) is these odd, tone-deaf and more vulgar bits of comedy early in the affair. I actually chuckled at them (quite hard, too, because I have very few brain cells), but you are right on the money. Those were the only parts that really could have been left out, but overall, I felt everything in this picture worked as a cohesive whole on a level I haven’t seen matched in theaters all of last year.
But again, I respect and honor your differing opinion on ‘Her.’
Thanks for reading and commenting. I think this is my 2013 “Silver Linings Playbook”. Most people adored it but I just liked it, didn’t love it. I figure it will will be tough to find someone who agrees with me on this one but that’s ok. Movies are such a subjective thing. That’s one of the things that make them so great.
Again, appreciate your take on it.
Too bad, I really wished you loved this one. I’m not disappointed though, you bring up some valid points. The film really radiated melancholy and had a dishearteningly antagonizing brutality about it. Regardless, terrific post!
Thanks man! I completely agree with those things you say. That’s what I found captivating. Theodore was such a well developed and sad character. You can’t help but feel for him and root for him to break the melancholy hold.
Nice review Keith. Like you mentioned there are different interpretations on the ending. A co-worker thought it was sad while I thought it had a bitter sweet hopefulness to it. I also thought Phoenix was really good, I felt for him at the end.
The interesting thing about the ending is something he says to Aimee. I really don’t want to spoil anything but it led to what could be perceived a very sad conclusion. I know that’s ridiculously vague but I wonder how many people picked up on that?
Nice review man and interesting to read a slightly more negative take on this one. We still haven’t got this one yet, but I’m really looking forward to it.
Thanks man. It a good film but not great for me. That said I feel I’ll be in the minority on this one. It’s getting a lot of love and it does some good things to warrant that.
Good review, Keith. I haven’t seen this yet, but it’s interesting to see a different take on it than the general acclaim.
I’m probably the only one who struggled with these things, lol. As I mentioned elsewhere, this may be my 2013 “Silver Linings Playbook”. Liked that film, didn’t love it. Most people really did though.
Hmm interesting thoughts! I haven’t seen it my self but seeing as there are some differing opinions here I feel I should give it a watch! The concept sounds a lot like Robot and Frank which I really enjoyed, so we will see!
Thanks for reading! It’s definitely worth seeing and most have really enjoyed it. I thought it was a good film but one that could have been so much better.
Great review, although I don’t agree on the humor part. Especially with the blue character had me laughing out loud because it was so unexpected.
Thanks man. I had an exact opposite reaction. I sat there shaking my head. For my it felt like something Adam Sandler would write. It really stood out from the rest of the humor with was subtle, smart, and effective.
Great review! I like this, and I think the humor is often spectacular.
But I agree this isn’t a perfect film – it’s very, very good, but not perfect. I completely agree that Isabella is the worst part.
Didn’t she come across as flimsy? She was just wedged in there. She came across as very weak and needy woman. I think her only contribution was to show that Theodore was no longer capable of a real relationship. He was dedicated to Samantha.
And to lead into Samantha’s realization that Theodore couldn’t be her whole world, which in turn leads to her rapid evolution that spins rapidly out of control.
But Isabella didn’t work. She would have been so much more effective if she HAD been a prostitute and Samantha HAD been taking some of Theodore’s money to pay her service for Isabella’s . . . affections. That no money is involved puts the focus on Isabella, distracting us with questions like, “Who is this woman? And what does she want?” instead of putting the focus on the scene’s drama between Theodore and Samantha, where it was supposed to be.
Hi Keith, somehow from the comment on my post I got a hunch you didn’t love this one as much as I did 😉 It’s totally ok, people get different things from films for whatever reasons. I’m glad you still appreciate parts of it, and the performances are certainly wonderful. I like what you said about Scarlett’s voice, it’s crazy how an OS can somehow sound *vulnerable* isn’t it?
I hear ya about Olivia Wilde’s role but I feel that it’s because she’s not a particularly strong actress because I think that scene is an essential one in regards to Joaquin’s character. He seeks out a human connection yet he’s starting to be more drawn to this soul-less, non-living being.
Thanks Ruth. I mentioned to someone else that I felt this was my 2013 “Silver Linings Playbook”. A movie everyone else adored but I only liked. I’m on a remote island again with “Her”. 🙂
I get what you’re saying about Wilde’s character and I think you’re right. That’s the main thing I took from those scenes. That Theodore was slowly becoming incapable of a real relationship. I guess my problem was with how weak and dependent she was. It kinda fit the weak vision that we get too often when it comes to women characters.
Nice review. You know I was a big fan of Her and it’s the film of the year for me. I thought the video game and cat scenes were meant to provide comic relief to break from the film’s seriousness. It really got me thinking at the end and I’m eager to watch it again.
Thanks man. I know I’m pretty much alone on this one. To me those two scenes I mentioned felt way out of place. There was a subtle comedic thread that kept showing itself and I really liked that. These two particular scenes felt like they were from a different movie altogether. I dunno, they just didn’t work for me. But I am in the minority. 🙂
Excellent review sir! I admire your honesty here. So many have praised this very highly. It’s good to read an opinion that picks out some flaws.
I’m a bit lonely on this one Mark. Sooo alone. There are some elements to this film that work incredibly well. I was fascinated but what Jonze was able to pull off. On the other hand, there were some things that didn’t work well at all.
Oh, by the way, rewatched “Fruitvale Station” per your suggestion. I actually had a slightly different experience this time. My review will probably go up Friday.
You sound like your feeling much like Phoenix’s character on this one 😉
You rewatched it then? Nice! Eager to read your review. My eyes are peeled.
A wee bit melancholy for sure. 😉
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