High concept movies don’t often work, but if there was a director that I would have trusted to make a movie about a solitary man who falls in love with his cellphone into something more than just gimmick, Spike Jonze might as well have been him. Jonze’s first movie Being John Malkovich, in which a mystical portal that leads to actor John Malkovich’s mind is discovered used a similarly novel device to delve into deeply human drama. That time, Jonze was collaborating with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. I always thought of Jonze as a much more emotional and raw force that balanced Kaufman’s more cerebral stories, and Her, which has Jonze writing a screenplay on his own for the first time seems to validate that thought.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Theodore Twombly, a man whose marriage has recently dissolved and is about to get officially divorced. He is lonely and deeply saddened by his situation, so he tries out this new Operating System that uses advance artificial intelligence that manifests itself in the form of a female voice, which gives herself the name of Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). Theodore falls in love with Samantha. That is the very premise of the movie, and also the aspect one feels couldn’t work going into it. Luckily, the movie does a fantastic job of convincing us of how love could blossom in this relationship. Not only how a man could fall in love with a voice, but how that voice could fall in love with the man. I will go right ahead and say the movie’s biggest asset is making the story as much about Theodore as it is about Samantha and her growth as a “being” that longs for knowledge and experience.
Another strength of the movie is that it takes its time to develop the relationship. Phoenix and Johansson both do fantastic jobs of portraying the different moments each character stands in throughout the two’s multiple interactions. Their love for each other develops slowly and rather beautifully, the movie is never better than in the first meeting between the two. This is a key moment on which the whole movie hinges upon. It’s the moment in which we get to believe these two could possibly fall in love. And it works. It works because of the actors, but also because of the meticulous work that has been put into creating a believable world. The film is set sometime in the future, with art direction that could very well belong in our times, but is just a little off. The atmospheric score by Arcade Fire and photography by the great Hoyte van Hoytema (Let the Right One In, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) make the movie an absolute beauty to look at.
The movie works. I couldn’t possibly say that it doesn’t, but at the same time there is something that keeps it from being outright great, even if it comes really close at times. One would expect such a movie to be about how we don’t connect with each other anymore, but it isn’t about that. In the end, the movie is about a relationship that doesn’t quite work. About a man who is trying to get over his failed marriage and a woman who has been designed in a way that she just can’t settle for his love. If this movie says something about our lives today, the state of modern technology, or modern romance, then I don’t know what that is. Samantha is unlike any kind of technology we are familiar with, so there is not much social commentary. Not that it needs to have some, the movie can be a love story and be left at that, but as such, it lives and dies by its clever conceit, and so, even when Her works, it feels more like dessert and not so much like something nutritious.
Grade: 7 out of 10