Her,” his most recent venture, made my top ten most anticipated films of the year list in 2013. This is a little odd when you consider he’s only made three features prior. More-so when you think about how two of those features, “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation,” legitimately great films, were authored by Charlie Kaufman. Kaufman is a screenwriter with a distinctive voice all his own. One that has, in the past, overshadowed the directors involved. Jonze’s first film made without Kaufman’s input, 2009’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” was his most divisive film yet, an emotionally devastating but wildly uneven dissertation on childhood. The point of this rambling introduction is that, while there were plenty of reasons to get excited about “Her,” I was ready to be disappointed.
Especially since the premise openly invites comparison to Kaufman’s style. “Her” is about a guy, a lonely, creative type, who falls in love with his computer, an advanced artificial intelligence of the near future. This is the sort of high concept quirkery comparable to lovers erasing memories of each other or a portal into a not-particularly-well-known-at-the-time character actor’s brain. Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore writes custom-on-order letters for people. Oh the irony, someone who can’t connect emotionally with people who is great at connecting with complete strangers via words. Considering the influx of indie flicks about lonely guys getting their life changed by quirky, outgoing women, “Her” had other problems too. Could Scarlett Johansson’s Samantha, the operating system Joaquin falls in love with, be cinema’s first computerized Manic Pixie Dream Girl? “Her” avoids most of these issues by being a genuinely thoughtful love story, exploring the situation in deeper ways, from a personal and societal prospective.
Millennials, Generation Z, whatever you want to call them. The first generation of kids who have been hooked into social media their entire lives. The kids who upload videos of themselves doing nothing to Youtube, tweet about every passing thought in their head, and post pictures of their lunch or other some mundane bullshit on Instagram. Theodore’s story is not an unusual occurrence in “Her’s” future. Other characters have developed romances with their OSs. Every background character in the film has a bud in their ear, eyes glued to tiny screen, speaking to a voice in their head. And what would a romance with a computer be like? All a program like Samantha does is reflect back your own personality, influenced by the contents of your hard drive. Naturally, a generation of self-adsorbed narcissists would fall in love with their computers. The social commentary of “Her” doesn’t occupy its main story, instead dwelling in the background, informing the events of the script.
But “Her” wouldn’t work if the viewer didn’t fall in love with Samantha too. Theodore could have been a problematic character. He’s praised by his co-workers for his sensitivity. Despite having lame facial hair, think glasses, and wearing dorky high-waisted pants, he has no problem picking up masturbation buddies in chat rooms and makes out with Olivia Wilde and Portia Doubleday. He’s named Theodore Twonley, for Christ’s sake! Joaquin Phoenix, an actor capable of astonishing intensity, keeps the unlikely character grounded. The film acknowledges, however subtly, the character’s deep shallowness. He falls in love with Samantha mostly because she validates him while giving his life structure. (It’s not like he’s a rare case either, as most everyone else in the film, like Amy Adams’ friend or her husband, are also up their own asses with self-obsession.) Phoenix’s performance ultimately roots the story in honest emotion, his exuberant joy visible, heartache or frustration present in his posture or facial expression. Johansson is rarely used well by directors, too often relegated to eye-candy role. Using only her smoky voice, she makes Samantha a real character, communicating sweetness, vulnerability, and enchantment with only slight vocal inflections.
The future imagined in “Her” is patently plausible. Personal computers have shrunk to the size of matchbooks and are mostly voice-activated, controlled with iPod-style ear buds. Video games are hands-free and play upon room-sized holograms. Samantha, and the eventual singularity OSs of her type lead too, is the most farfetched element. The film’s central premise is mostly used to comment on the nature of romance, how people fall in love, how relationships evolve, the ups and downs of fresh love, when sex gets in the way, and how people can outgrow each other. And, who knows, maybe artificial intelligence or something like it could be mass-produced by 2044.