Many thanks to my friend and fellow cinephile-in-arms Carson Lund for helping me edit this piece.
Her is so obsessed with trying to tell a story about “how we live now” that any of its profound ideas seem quite self-evident. By playing the romance between Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix, introverted to the point of limitation[i]) and his new operating system, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson[ii]), as a serious relationship, Jonze certainly asks us to explore radical territory by thinking about our new(-ish) relationship to technology. However, it becomes quite apparent that despite this bold premise, it’s more of a sleek surface to create an allegory of loneliness. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with such a choice, except Jonze emphasizes his narrative through utter banality, a conventional romance about letting go of the past. Despite the uniqueness of the central relationship, Jonze is complacent in simply following through the various conventions of meet cute scenes, vulnerable people talking about their vulnerability, and various day trips that play to broad gestures of emotions. These sequences rely on montages that could come out of his 90s music videos—pleasantly shot in mutedly light colors for pleasant compositions, but rarely perceptive ones—pandering to a little more than a cinematic equivalent of BuzzFeed. It’s an emotional simulacrum without depth.
The potential of Her is brimming, yet Jonze’s decision to instead romanticize this relationship as conventional as possible gives little room for exploration. The basic plot should be a daring feat, to make us emotionally believe in this relationship as a possibility while investigating the teleological elements of a digital society— not only has how our technology has changed but how it has changed our own social relationships. But Jonze swerves toward the easy route at every corner. Samantha is a “perfect” system built to every need of Theodore, which should provide a mountain of territory to explore in the world of customizable technology, but even such a possibility is brushed aside with a few jokes (“What’s your relationship with your mother like?” — we’re still making this joke?). Every opportunity feels squandered. The first “sex scene” between Theodore and Samantha has potential to explore that strange relationship between our physical and mental drives. But instead he fades to black and then giving us an overview shot of Los Angeles that strikes as wholly arbitrary and tonally awkward, a “magical” moment that left me cold. His satire of the Appleization of culture is certainly present in the film’s mise-en-scene, but the film’s too cloying dialogue (“I thought this song could be like a photograph for us”) suggests there is less critique than an embrace of the style like a Millennial steampunk. Even more gaping, the satire of video games and phone sex is fish-in-a-barrel levels of irrelevance.
This is not to say Her is completely devoid of clever or interesting ideas. The use of a Shanghai-Los Angeles juxtaposition creates a unique dystopic landscape. Some discussion about Theodore’s ability to “project” emotions and lives onto people—whether through his job or while walking around with Samantha—is certainly something crucial to the narrative and gives a unique insight about how we often read people.[iii] And while that original sex scene is disappointing, a latter one involving a “threesome” gets into an emotional and morally thorny territory examining authenticity and replication. But most of this is just backdrop or dismissed for the sake of allegory—he seems only mildly interested in these ideas, using them like the candy colors that fill the film’s various locales. Her eventually finds an easy out to its central relationship before ending on a contrived and banal final monologue and one of the most laughably obvious shots of the year (“All you need is love” complete with a cue of Feelings courtesy of Arcade Fire’s obnoxiously cute score).
Jonze’s films have always placed emotional territory before intellect, but I wish he would search more for the intellect within these emotions—how and why we process them, and what radical possibilities can be unlocked by them. This is what we see in the forbears of melodrama—Griffith, Mizoguchi, Sirk—and the filmmakers who continue to use the styling of melodrama today—Wong, Garrel, Gray, and Wes Anderson. Jonze uses palatable “cute” surfaces as covers to his raw feelings, but this embracement of brash and unrefined material strikes me as more dubious than revelatory. Simply observe the montage of Theodore’s past relationship with Catherine (Rooney Mara, underutilized), a series of unspecific details of kissing, snuggles, and eventually fighting that give us little reason to invest in his need to let go, given how little we understand about the relationship.[iv] A woman asks Theodore directly what he loves most about Samantha, and he rambles, “It’s just so many things…it’s larger than that” (this is taken as an serious, intelligent response). In Her, Jonze assumes simply having showing emotions is good enough, which is why everything under its surface is palpably thin.
By embracing such a radical premise and guiding it through emotions, what’s surprising is how conservative Jonze’s film actually is. His views of both technology and relationships fall into old adages that feel quite simplistic in comparison to the film’s radical potential. In the end, Her is the first film of the new decade that already feels dated.
[i]While every film requires a different type of performance, I cannot help but feel Phoenix’s internalized gestures are undercut by Jonze’s filmmaking of him mostly in relaxed medium shots that never utilize his physical body. His cinematic language is so obvious that Phoenix resonates with very little internal life, as opposed to recent performances in Anderson’s The Master and especially Gray’s The Immigrant.
[ii] An emotive and striking performance given the limitations imposed on the actress to just her voice, but one that stretches the plausibility of its premise.
[iii] The film’s best scene happens to be one featuring Olivia Wilde on a first date that goes from perfect to horrible in a matter of seconds, an interesting take on how easily our emotions read into a single line or moment.
[iv] There are huge issues of gender at play here with the way that Jonze’s writing of female characters into one-note archetypes (especially Mara’s Catherine and Amy Adams’s Amy), all too perfectly constrained and left with unexamined lives. I hope another critic can tackle this glaring issue at some point.