Until I watched Her, I was not really sure why I liked the films directed by Spike Jonze. When you watch them all together, looking at the evolving career of an artist, it becomes obvious that this a film maker interested in stories that speak about heartache, alienation, social awkwardness and the power of imagination and creativity. More importantly, Jonze’s films tend to be more substantive on larger metaphorical themes that are open to interpretation, and less focused on the specifics of a particular story. In other words, the story is a vehicle through which to express or hint at certain emotions and ideas.
Though I may have been taken by the story, what really stayed with me, after more than a month has passed since I watched it, are the philosophical nuances which make the film larger and more important than what it chooses to reveal at first.
So, what is Her about? Is it about the love story between a man and a machine? Is it about the psychological state of this man and what he’s willing to do to not feel lonely? Is it about the future of social interactions and love? Or, is it a larger commentary about the dangers of social media?
At the end, it is pointless to restrict its message to any particular thing when, in fact, it is meant to be larger than the sum of its parts. The conversation that I want to have is less about what is being said or done, and more about what is being implied, even if it is multiple things at once. Ironically, the more confusing and less precise the themes of films tend to be, as is the case with Her, the better they seem to become.
In his very first full writing and directing credit, Spike Jonze expands on the ideas that he has been touching upon through his career with a story that feels immediately personal, even if it takes place in a not-so-distant future. After only a few moments into Her, it is evident that Theodore, brilliantly played by an awkwardly affecting Joaquin Phoenix, is a lonely and depressed middle-aged man. Unlike the picture-perfect and impersonal near-future world he lives in, Theodore wears his feelings in his sleeves. Though he dresses with his pants high around his waist like most fashionable men in his time, his physical disposition suggests a less than manicured interior. To the people around him, it is clear that Theodore is grieving the end of his marriage, a sudden turn in his life that has driven him to near-exile and emotional castration.
Given Theodore utter depression, it would have been easy for Spike Jonze to follow either the path of gloom, or worse, the path of self-realization with a neatly wrapped happy ending. By choosing neither, Jonze gives us a wonderfully eccentric piece that changes and shifts with the relationship that develops between Theodore and an artificially intelligent computer named Samantha, voiced with great restrain by a near-perfect Scarlett Johansson. What is fascinating about their interaction is that it never ceases to feel off-putting and purposefully awkward. The love they begin to feel for each other never fully realized and never completely at peace. From the beginning there are doubts. Most of them come, as expected, from Theodore. He is not only conflicted about his true motivations, but he is worried that whatever he is pursuing might be a direct consequence of his underlying loneliness and depression. Ironically, when their relationship seems to be at its peak, it is Samantha who begins to evolve in a way that can’t be matched by Theodore, who remains bound to his human condition while she discovers the endless possibilities to her unique condition.
It would be a diservice on my part not to mention the extraordinary soundtrack of the film. Arranged by Arcade Fire, they contributed some of their music and incorporated a number of other artists that match, beat by beat, the tone that Spike Jonze seems to be pursuing with the film. As it often happens, the movie’s most tender and beautiful scene comes when music and story become one, and both Samantha and Theodore sing with each other a simple yet terribly effective tune (the Moon Song, nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song, and my personal favorite).
Though there are cringe-worthy moments in which the awkwardness extends beyond the screen, Her is dotted with beautiful scenes that more than make up for it. The film’s eccentricity and originality merit a place in my personal film collection, somewhere between A.I. and Wall-E.