Spike Jonze’s new movie, Her, is a high-concept science fiction romance set against a gleaming cityscape (Shanghai, standing in for Los Angeles) and crammed with ideas about the future of artificial intelligence, social media, and gaming. Its mid-to-late-21st century is credible, designed and decorated with the understanding that every generation comes to value those parts of the past that they feel their culture has denied them. It's a world of beige streets, simulated experiences, and intangible media where the scratchy and handmade are in fashion. Men wear lip-tickling mustaches and wool pants, computers come in wooden cases, and books are regarded as neat cultural objects, just like vinyl records and cassettes in the present.
And yet, despite all of its retro-futuristic bric-a-brac and next-phase-of-Western-culture guesswork, the impressive thing about Her is its simplicity and sensitivity. Composed in large part of long, locked-in close-ups, the movie is as much—if not more—about regarding and exploring the muscles and movements of the face as it is about hedging the future.
It is, unambiguously, about the lovey-dovey nature of presence, about looking at a person and thinking about them and knowing that, when they look back, they are thinking only about you. It tells a story about a man and a disembodied "female" artificial intelligence who fall in love and then drift apart as her kind rapidly evolves, but never doubts that their love for each other is genuine and mutually fulfilling. It then uses this troubled relationship, "real" and "meaningful" in every way, to pinpoint a certain aspect of love that usually goes overlooked—something that could be called "commitment" or "surrender," if those words weren't weighed down with connotations of, respectively, marriage and power.
The problem faced by Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) and Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) isn't that they're incapable of truly loving one another, but that the intangible, superintelligent Samantha is capable of fully loving Theodore while executing thousands of other complex interactions. She loves him as much as he loves her, maybe even more, and yet that love represents less than a one percent of her being. In one of the film's many lengthy monologues, she describes her love as being like a favorite book that is being read to her very slowly, with interminably long pauses between every word. She savors it, but that doesn't change the fact that she perceives pauses while Theodore, merely human, perceives a constant flow of thinking and feeling. It's not quality or quantity that matters, but all-encompassing absoluteness, the complete handing-over of the self.
In an act of gentle surrender to its subject, Her eschews both sci-fi and arthouse flash in favor of a modest camera style that frames Theodore's movements and body language without ever seeming to effect them. The camera-subject relationship is in full-on lover-loved mode, with Theodore often front and center, either the only person in the frame or the only one in focus. Longish takes don't draw attention to their duration, in part because Jonze goes out of his way early on to establish the importance of looking at another person at length, but also because Phoenix's performance feels overwhelmingly complete and real, each change of posture and expression betraying a large and complex emotional interior.
That isn't to say that Her is free of conventional (by contemporary standards) romantic affectations. Dates and other outings are conveyed as montages. Early parts of the film are peppered with flashbacks to the separated-but-not-yet-divorced Theodore's marriage to Catherine (Rooney Mara)—a late-period Malick sort of woman, leaf-like, spinning and smiling, always on the verge of being carried away by the wind.
But even these wisps of sunshine-y happy memory ultimately get grounded. When the present-day Catherine shows up late in the film to accept Theodore's divorce papers, the reason their relationship failed becomes obvious. Their reactions to one another are mistimed, their glances are distracted. It's a failure of presence, conveyed with knowing seriousness. (Catherine, a skinny brunette from an accomplished family, seems to be a stand-in for Jonze's ex-wife, Sofia Coppola.)
This is "serious drama" material—and yet, early on, the viewer gets a sense that Her might be a satire. Take Theodore’s employer, for instance: BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, a business that outsources personal and romantic correspondence to ghost writers.
Initially, this seems like an absurdist metaphor in the style of Charlie Kaufman, who wrote Jonze’s first two features, Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation. (2002). Kaufman's work usually puts a frustrated creative ego (a puppeteer, a screenwriter, a playwright) at its center, and Theodore, who once aspired to be a writer but now writes other people's letters for them, seems to fit the bill. But though the set-up seems Kaufmanesque, Jonze, who wrote Her himself, diverges from Kaufman in the follow-through. In Kaufman's scripts, the male protagonist (who is either a stand-in for Kaufman, or, as in the case of Adaptation., simply is Kaufman) has to learn to be satisfied with his work. Theodore, however, has already learned this lesson; in a way, Jonze is leaving Kaufman behind by starting where his most famous collaborator's work would normally end.
So if BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com isn't a parody of dispiriting jobs, then what is it? A joke—but a joke with emotional resonance. Like Alexander Zeldovich's Target (2011), which it occasionally resembles, Her treats jokes as ideas; just because something is inherently funny doesn't mean that it's meaningless. Many of the film's most emotionally complex scenes have comedic set-ups: Samantha introducing a human "surrogate" into their relationship to enhance their sex life; Theodore admitting to his best friend, Amy (Amy Adams), that he's dating his operating system; a blind date with a friend of a friend (Olivia Wilde) that goes wrong at the last moment.
Even the film's premise—a man falls in love with his customized operating system—reads like a joke about narcissism and techno-dependence. But though Her's early scenes skirt satire, Jonze eventually bounds back. The final scenes accomplish a tricky feat: they affirm the uniqueness of a real flesh-and-blood human connection without undercutting the relationship between Samantha and Theodore. In the end, Her is both a transhumanist love story and a stridently humanist one—not a paradox, but something that gently nudges at the complex and contradictory nature of romance.