HER (2013, Spike Jonze)
You know you’re talking to an old person when they trot out the cliched Luddite whining of “Oh, these kids today and their smart phones. All they’re doing is texting and going on the Facebook and nobody talks to each other anymore!” While it’s true that kids today use smart phones, it doesn’t mean everybody is less social. Technology is not the end of interpersonal interaction — it doesn’t inherently prevent it; it just changes the way we connect — in both positive and negative ways.
One of the better things about Spike Jonze’s exquisitely directed sci-fi romance HER is that even though he quickly sets up a world that looks to be a futurist critique of technological isolation (in the opening scenes, Theodore is surrounded by people on his commute, but never talks to anyone — nor does anyone else; everybody is engaging only with their personal operating systems) he doesn’t succumb to the obvious trap of making Theodore an anti-social dweeb. When put in a social situation, he’s engaged and intelligent — he bonds with his friends and relates to a co-worker and is generally a normal dude. Sure, he’s a bit awkward and is definitely more prone to date Siri than many other people around him (and his personal problems no doubt contributed to his pending divorce, as we slowly learn), but it appears he’s not alone — this is just the way it is now.
But as the story goes on and Theodore essentially is forced to learn how to get closure on that divorce by having an enriching relationship with computerized hardware, it’s clear Jonze wants us to get as emotionally involved as Theodore gets. And that’s where the film falls short for me. I just didn’t find those moments where I identified enough with what was going on to get choked up and surrender to the feelings on screen — it was pretty removed; something that didn’t happen when seeing Kaufman works like SYNECDOCHE, NY and ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. I was a puddle of mush at the end of those films. Jonze, working without Kaufman here (but seemingly with his spirit), can’t muster that kind of direct-to-the-heart communication to the audience (or at least to me).
This may be a flaw with the writing, but certainly not of the acting, camera work, or production design — which are peerless. Joaquin Phoenix brings a warmth and tenderness to Theodore in as visceral a way as he brought coiled rage and animal instinct to his all-timer performance in THE MASTER. Scarlett Johansson’s voice work (the second actress to do this role — poor Samantha Morton, who played Samantha on set, is now saddled with merely an Associate Producer credit as her entire performance was deleted and replaced with the giggly, husky, never-seemingly-digital uniqueness of Johansson) does everything it needs to do — establish a presence so tactile and vibrant that you’d believe Theodore would fall for it. Amy Adams is in this movie, too, because Amy Adams is now in every movie. She’s the Jessica Chastain of 2013. (Speaking of which, where is Chastain? She went from being in everything to totally absent this year).
Dutch DP Hoyte Van Hoytema shoots a crisp, warm, delicate vision of the near-future, aided by a post-IKEA rendering of modern Los Angeles life designed by long-time Jonze collaborator K.K. Barrett. It’s one of the first futuristic movies I’ve seen where I could believe this world will exist some day, I can see its lineage to current times, and yet I’m pleasantly surprised by so many details throughout. None of us can predict where the current technological boom will take us, but Jonze makes a pretty strong case for how it will affect humanity and — more importantly — how it won’t.