Last week in my review of INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, I made the point that a lot of what people see as the deeper meanings scattered throughout that film have a great deal to do with what the individual critic or audience member bring to it. Of course, personal history informs the way we look at all forms of art, from films to music, television and theater. And HER, the latest masterpiece from writer-director Spike Jonze (BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, ADAPTATION, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE), is no exception. Jonze's great talent as a filmmaker is wrapping a creative, often humorous shell around a deep emotional truth and then placing that package into an even more impressive story that is never straight-forward but always easy to follow.
From my vantage point (and I think many others will agree), HER is about finding happiness again after a particularly painful divorce. Set so slightly in the future, it might just be a matter of a few months rather than years, the film tells us the tale of an emotionally complicated soul named Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), who isn't so much sad because his wife (Rooney Mara); he's in full-fledge mourning, deep in an devastating funk that has left him broken as a person with little hope of recovery. Theodore is a professional letter writer--a man who composes beautifully written letters from one person to another for a price--and he's quite good at his job, even in his present state. He has friends both at work and outside of work (you'll enter the very funny banter from co-worker Chris Pratt), but Theodore is a man alone. He tries sex chat message boards (featuring by some very amusing, familiar voices), but even that leaves him empty. His one occasional salvation is neighbor Amy (Amy Adams), but she's not a romantic possibility since she marries to a condescending jack-ass (Matt Letscher as Charles).
Early in the film, Theodore crashes and burns during a blind date with a slightly off-kilter woman played quite convincingly by Olivia Wilde, who has had a heck of a year between this film, RUSH and DRINKING BUDDIES; hell, I'll even give her points for being interesting in THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE. Wilde's rapid decent into crazy would almost be a treat to watch, did it not mean such terrible things for poor Theodore. All of this occurs just as our hero purchases a new operating system for his computerized life, one that is said to be an artificial intelligence, using intuition to make interactions more friendly and user specific. In other words, the OS gets to know the user inside and out. Theodore's OS is named Samantha, voiced with the right combination of knowing and curiosity by Scarlett Johansson. And as this unlikely pair get to know each other, they begin to fall in love, or something quite like it.
The wonderful trailers and commercials for HER might lead you to believe that this building love affair (which does include some quite intimate moments between the happy couple) is the end game of the film, but the truth is they start to realize how strong their feelings are about 30-40 minutes into this two-hour movie. The falling in love is only the beginning of where Jonze wants to take us. He poses the most interesting question possibly of the year: Since relationships between two emotionally complex human beings so often leads to disaster, would removing one human and replacing it with a more emotionally adjustable being make relationships any more successful as a practice? Or would one set of problems simply be replaced by another? It probably doesn't take months of couples counseling to figure that one out.
And lest you think Samantha is some complacent, agreeable creature, think again. As she learns and grows and attempts to approximate human emotion to go along with you curiosity, he begins to question Theodore's feelings, decisions, and asks him to examine why his marriage didn't work. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Theodore's involvement with Samantha is that it's not unique. We find out that men and women are falling in love with their OSs with an alarming regularity, and it has become almost commonplace and acceptable to do so in this version of the future, whose most defining feature seems to be the high-waisted pants with not belts that everyone is wearing.
The wonderful and shocking truth is that I loved watching Theodore and Samantha go on dates and get to know each other. He pops his phone in his shirt pocket with the camera pointed forward to the world, and they go for walks so that she can see the world as he does. She brings out the best in him by always wanting to know more, laughing with him and noticing even the slightest changes in his mood. And there's no way you won't put yourself in his position, even just for a moment and imagine how you would respond to that much devotion. But we are clued in early on that the more she learns--about Theodore and the world--the more she'll want to grow beyond the confines of their relationship. She disappears briefly to read and research things she becomes interested in, and even meets other OSs to discuss what they have learned.
At the height of Theodore's bliss, he has lunch with his not-quite-ex to sign their final divorce papers. When he reveals to her the status of his love life, she unleashes a series of hard truths that make him and us question his motivations. It's an ugly moment in the film, but not one that isn't loaded with things to contemplate as the film moves forward. Is this just the bitter exit of a wife that once felt special and now feels betrayed, or is she right that Theodore's desire to be the center of attention in a relationship has finally been met the only way it truly could be? And there is Phoenix wearing each accusation like a bruise on his face. He's absolutely flawless as Theodore, and it's impossible to imagine any other actor of his generation capturing the hurt and joy quite like he does here. He's an actor capable of big moments--as he did repeatedly in last year's THE MASTER--but he devours the screen with small, insightful nuances.
For those who think HER is about our evolving relationship with technology, I guess that's in the mix too, but honestly that could not have been further from my mind while watching this film. Samantha is as much a creature of flesh and blood as any in the film, so much so that she comes up with the idea of hiring a sex surrogate (Portia Doubleday) for Theodore who provides a silent body for Samantha's seductive voice. Again, apparently this is an accepted practice in this version of the future, but that doesn't make it any less creepy for Theodore.
Bringing it back to the idea that HER is about breaking through the pain of divorce (or the end of any long-term relationship, I suppose), Theodore's plight and eventual newfound bliss is about making making a connection. He's desperate to find something in his life that won't hurt him like his ex-wife did, and the odds seem to be in his favor that a computer is just such a thing. Little does he know. But Jonze is an eternal optimist; he's a spirit guide through a great deal of pain, but he usually brings us out of such a gauntlet with some amount of hope, if not outright happiness. HER is a magnificent story of a kind of love; it's somehow manages to be utterly original, while clinging to conventional romantic ideas about soul mates, desire and the resulting bliss. There's an immaculate grace to the film that will both haunt me and fill me with joy every time I watch or even think of it. Prepare to be moved.