Update late 2019: Looking back on some old Joaquin Phoenix films with Joker raising such a ruckus, and I’m torn on Her after a six-year gap in viewing. The film certainly feels less monumental than it did six years ago, but that’s also a show of strength: quietly but demonstrably, critically but not-cynically, the film exhibits curiosity about relationships, identity, and the world, and its lack of capital-case textures and showboating maneuvers suggest the subtlety of its craft more than Importance ever could. That said, I’m less certain that Her’s curlicued production design affectations, while kept in check from garish Burtonesque grotesqueness or Wes Anderson-esque excess by Hoyte von Hoytema’s phenomenally diffuse, naturalistic cinematography, are actually the auto-critical gestures the film so clearly thinks them to be. The film’s look is still pointed, and still effective, but at times, it encroaches on the very mannered twee-ness that the style otherwise so thoughtfully diagnoses about modernity, so much so that the film seems cloistered and soul-bearing at once. Is it thoughtfully contradictory for the film to lean so clearly into its very object of critique, as though swirling around in its own critical gaze, or is it simply too-cute by half?
Original (Edited) Review:
After Where the Wild Things Are, I’d been waiting intently to see what writer-director Spike Jonze would do next. Create a fascinatingly mundane view of society and the individuals that populate it? Produce a gorgeous feast for the eyes that exists at odds with the dynamic, dreary visuality of most films today? Wring great, pointedly hollow performances of out some very talented actors, even one who doesn’t appear on camera? Create one of the finest, most honest romances of the new century, albeit between a human and an AI, without resorting to either cloying melodrama or judgmental pandering? Include not one but two very fiercely well manicured mustaches? Well he did it all and then some.
Her’s central focus is a relationship between the mild-mannered and disinterested Theodore Twombly (an enigmatic, wonderfully passive Joaquin Phoenix in a performance that rereads his role in The Master through a warmer, more caring lens) and the robotic but feeling artificial intelligence Samantha (Scarlett Johansson, in another performance revealing her complete and total understanding of how she’s at her best when playing an alien, distant figure mostly devoid of emotion). A relationship that Jonze explores with great care and concern. With no small eye for human melancholy in a modern world, he understands that part of Theodore’s interest in Samantha is his lack of contentedness with the world around him, and he isn’t afraid to explore what’s lost in Theodore’s life. But, importantly, Jonze doesn’t mock the two figures. Like a modern-day Woody Allen, he articulates the downsides of human disinterestedness with pinpoint clarity, while also maintaining a genuine feeling and care for humanity as well. It is the great joy of Her that Jonze actively rejects the tendency to give in to miserablist dejection and cold calculation; he doesn’t ever, not for one second, look down on Theodore or Samantha, and he displays a genuine affection for both of them, human or not. This is Jonze at his most romantic and his most humanist, a sublimely and uniquely generous motion picture.
At the same time, Jonze’s greatest success may be his outward realization of the society around Theodore. Most obviously, his subtle futurisms are stunningly realized and, if they don’t capture a realist conception of where the future might go, they evoke an artist’s perspectival discernment of the modern world read (slightly) beyond itself for its increasingly frail, pale nature. The work of cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (quickly on the rise and looking to be a future superstar of sorts) is of particular note, capturing a lackadaisical, pastel impression of the future with all the edges of human dissonance and cruel jaggedness superficially sanded off for something safer yet no less lonely (the prevalence of mustaches also convey a certain descent into arch-irony society never recovered from). This artificial look more than anything does the most work toward conveying why Theodore would turn to an AI when other humans have failed him. In this world, our world, it’s not that AIs have become more human-like, but rather that humans have become more like AIs. Which is why Jonze sees no interest in judging Theodore for falling for Samantha; the director understands the melding of warmth and coldness that exists in the world of Her, and he isn’t so much frightened of technology run amok as curious about it.
For all this, plus its many other strengths (an unusually sublime and earthy Amy Adams is also wonderful), the film isn’t perfect. The last act boldly goes somewhere into the sci-fi unknown and never returns to the more subtle, lower-key atmosphere of the film’s central romance. It’s logically sound, but the film hadn’t been unto that point wholly interested in logistical logic when it can instead follow its own internal emotional, affective logic. Up until the end, the film had been a science-fiction parable that confidently eschewed anything resembling science as it mastered the fiction. An infusion of the former sacrifices the latter, and that’s not a trade-off I’d take any day. Still, an almost monumental film for 80-90% of its running length can’t be beaten into submission. Jonze’s film is a messy exploration of humanity, and when it is content to explore humanity it’s as good a film as he’s yet made.