I am a huge fan of Spike Jonze. I don’t feel that this is much of a confession – hang out with me for more than an hour and I’ll probably name-drop him at least twice. The reason I say this is because I knew I was going to love Her from the first time I even heard of it. I may be a little bit biased in that regard.
So because of all that, or maybe despite of it, I love Her. Do you believe in love at first sight? If you’re me, that doesn’t even matter because I loved this movie even more every minute that went by from the opening close-up of Joaquin Phoenix’s face to the closing shot overlooking the city.
Let’s talk about the most tangible details first, and then work our way into the more subtle nuances. Sound good?
Since the movie opens with a close-up, let’s talk about the cast. Anybody remember The Master? Joaquin Phoenix gave a career-defining performance as a drunk washed up loser that took his career to entirely new heights. He completely emerged himself into that role until you couldn’t even recognize the actor. Well, he’s done it again. Maybe the creepy-but-not-creepy moustache helped a little bit, but in Her Phoenix finds even more new ground and digs into new emotions all over again. He doesn’t just act, he personifies our pain, our skepticism, our longing for connection, and ultimately our unwavering optimism at the bottom of it all. As Theodore Twombly, Phoenix takes us on a journey of self-discovery in the face of cynicism and rescues us from our self-destructive selves.
Amy Adams plays Amy, Theodore’s tried-it-once college girlfriend who is now his friend struggling to make her own love life work. Adams is stunning here, as her work always has been, but her quiet disposition and gentle expressions here bring such life to the film it is impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. The rapport between Phoenix and Adams is in stark contrast to the dynamic between their characters in The Master which further highlights the abilities of both actors to inhabit completely different characters and bring them to life in ways that continue to define the job description.
The other supporting roles – Chris Pratt as Theodore’s hapless boss, Matt Letscher as Amy’s subtly manipulative husband, Olivia Wilde’s wondrous appearance as a woman full of doubt who is willing to give love another try anyway, Portia Doubleday as a surrogate lover, Rooney Mara as Theodore’s ex-wife, and even Brian Cox’s brief voice work all round out the stunning abilities on display, creating a beautiful mosaic of characters all grounded in the world created by Jonze.
But it is without a doubt, Scarlett Johansson’s work as Samantha, the OS who falls in love with Theodore that steals the show. By now, this comment is nothing new, but I cannot ignore just how perfect she is. Although we never see her, Johansson is there right in front of us. You can feel her in your head as though she were talking to you personally. Her voice work is so fully convincing, so emotive, so achingly human that you actually forget you are just hearing voice over. Part of this is, again, due to Phoenix’s ability to convincingly listen in front of a camera – here’s an experiment, the next time you want to know what it’s like to be an actor, put a camera in front of your face and then try and act out just sitting there and listening – but Johansson’s ability to fully put herself out there is stunning.
On that note, let’s talk about some of the criticisms the movie has received in this particular regard. I’ve heard several different opinions, some from people who liked the movie, some who didn’t, some who liked the movie but didn’t like Johansson, etc. But one of them in particular stands out – an accusation that the movie has sexist undertones because of Johansson’s casting. This person made the argument that we are supposed to fall in love with Samantha because Johansson is cast in the role, and not because Samantha is a convincing person. If Samantha Morton, who originally read the lines on set for the cast to act opposite of, was kept in the role, we would perceive Samantha in a different light, one more honest and less manipulative.
Now, I disagree, but I’d like to talk about why. First of all, let’s understand that both Johansson and Morton are phenomenal actors. (If you’ve never seen Morton’s work, I recommend In America in particular, although any role of hers will do.) But what does it say when an actor puts in their work only to be removed from the film and replaced by someone else? This happens more often than we tend to realize. Actors after all, are working jobs, just like the rest of us shovel gravel on the highway or if you’re, you know, smart, do things with numbers and math and that kind of stuff. So let’s understand that this is unfortunate, but a reality of the business. Second, we are supposed to love Samantha (the character, although we should love Samantha Morton too) and Johansson accomplishes that. Could Morton have done the same? She probably could have. The reality is, we know Johansson as a public figure, while Morton is a lesser known character actor. It is difficult to understand just how profound a difference this makes. Look back at when I said I was biased to love this movie even before I saw it and maybe you’ll realize how much our expectations can shape the way we experience movies. So we’re bringing a lot of our own expectations to the role itself. Third, we are supposed to love Samantha because Theodore loves Samantha. Phoenix doesn’t just express emotions, he invites us to experience them along with him and as a result, we fall in and out of love alongside him. This is an essential aspect of filmmaking, the ability to evoke our empathy with a character, and it is the most common topic that is left out of discussions about movies – okay, maybe not the single most common topic, but I feel that it is up there. Empathy is essential. In this case, our falling in love with Samantha has nothing to do with Johansson and is up to the writing, the directing, and the acting of the rest of the cast. And finally, yes, I agree that it sucks that our culture is predisposed to fall for traditionally “sexy” voices, but I don’t really think that is a fair criticism of the film itself. Sexism, like any discrimination, stems from ignorance and the goal should be to help others become aware of society’s bizarre standards, not to tear down other people.
This is a real topic to be discussed, perhaps at another time, but I don’t think that accusing Her of being sexist is exactly the right approach.
Now, this is where it gets fun, because there is one relationship in the film that really stood out to me that never would have if I hadn’t heard the aforementioned opinion. I’m talking about Amy and her husband, Charles. This is a toxic relationship of the most dangerous kind. Charles is subtly manipulative of Amy and she doesn’t even realize it. Notice the first time we meet him and he offers advice to Theodore about the proper way of getting nutrients from fruit and vegetables – eat your fruit, juice your vegetables. Get ready to practice your audible groans because this is the worst kind of person and he deserves to hear your disgust through the space-time continuum that allows actors to communicate with their audiences Purple Rose of Cairo-style. No, wait, that’s not a real thing, is it? But I’m not trying to draw your attention to Charles’ juicing habits, I want you to notice the way he argues with Amy. Amy defends Theodore by saying maybe he likes the way it tastes – note here that she’s not really talking about Theodore *SUBTEXT ALERT* and yet, Charles knows that he is right and Amy is wrong and he doesn’t hesitate to let her know. *MORE SUBTEXT ALERT* Okay, this is a brief interaction but it establishes their relationship perfectly. Later we see the documentary Amy has been working on – an examination of how we spend a third of our lives asleep. The footage is simply of Amy’s mother sleeping, and we have to admit, it is not very interesting. But she believes in her topic so we nod our heads and say we understand and believe that deep down we really do. Charles, on the other hand, does not. But notice how he doesn’t criticize her work, rather he suggests improvements. Maybe you could interview her about her dreams and then hire actors to act it out, he says. But then it wouldn’t be a documentary, Amy replies. And they go back and forth like this. Charles ever so slightly undermines what Amy is trying to say and Amy can only defend herself the best she can but she knows she is losing the argument on the inside even if it doesn’t look like it on the outside.
Not surprisingly, their relationship does not last. That’s not to say it has a predictable end, but it can’t for the sake of the narrative. What really stuck out for me was just how dangerous Amy and Charles’ relationship is because Amy doesn’t even realize how much she is willing to change who she is just because Charles didn’t like something about her. Interesting enough, Theodore’s relationship with Catherine (Rooney Mara) is quite similar. Theodore and Catherine grew up together and because of this, they know each other much better than most couples who meet later in life do. Catherine grew up in a situation where nothing was ever good enough and this drives her in ways many of us do not understand, including Theodore. As such, Theodore puts pressure on Catherine to change who she is and finally when she can’t take it anymore, their relationship also dissolves. What I find interesting is the way the movie examines how we change those we come into contact with. At the beginning of the film, Theodore is wounded because his marriage has ended, and at the end he is wounded because his relationship with Samantha has ended, but somewhere in between he has become a changed man. While Catherine broke his heart, Samantha helped rebuild it. I’d like to point out that this does not make Samantha a better woman than Catherine, but it is interesting that an artificial personality is what Theodore needed to move on. This is the heart of Jonze’s screenplay. That relationships are always real, no matter who they are with, and they change us all the time. Samantha often talks about how she is growing, feeling new things, learning new details about herself and her world. Theodore is reluctant to let her change, but he can’t stop it either, and finally, he grows as well. We can’t help it. We are always in flux. What happened a moment ago doesn’t necessarily have any bearing on who we are now. “The past is just a story we tell ourselves,” Samantha muses. Jonze is able to highlight this by having Theodore fall in love with someone who, by the standard definitions, does not exist. After all, Samantha is just a program right? Remember, empathy is the most important part of filmmaking. Why do we have so many feelings for Samantha, whether they be good or bad? Because humans experience empathy. We cannot help but be affected by everyone we come into contact with, and if it takes an OS to make us realize that, does it really make a difference? To Theodore, Samantha is just as real as Catherine or Amy, who in turn are just as magical as Samantha.
Ultimately, Her isn’t about the modern age, it’s about the human age. It’s about the way we relate to other people and the way we relate to ourselves. It’s about love and loss and loneliness. In the end it is achingly optimistic that even though relationships hurt and come to an end, we can always move forward. “The heart’s not like a box that gets filled up, it expands in size the more you love.” Her challenges the cynicism often aimed at technology today by reminding us what it really means to be human. That’s something worth celebrating.