Review – Her

It’s love Jim, but not as we know it in Spike Jonze’s prescient tale of one man’s unconventional relationship with his operating system.

Her treads a well worn path, but does so in such a wonderfully uncynical and sweet-natured way you'll be glad you went down it

Her treads a well-worn path, but does so in such a wonderfully uncynical and sweet-natured way you’ll be glad you went down it

Since his striking debut Being John Malkovich, Jonze has divided critical opinion between those who embrace his unique vision and those who deride his films as being painfully self-conscious.

It’s unlikely his new film will woo the naysayers, but anyone who writes off Her as a knowing exercise in hipsterism is blinding themselves to one of cinema’s most honest, painful and beautiful love stories since the 2007 Irish charmer Once.

Shanghai fills in for near future LA in Her

Shanghai fills in for near future LA in Her

The premise of Her sounds like an offshoot of Charlie Brooker’s tech-led anthology TV series Black Mirror. Set in a near future LA, lost and lonely Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is still coming to terms with the breakdown of his marriage to childhood sweetheart Catherine (Rooney Mara) and can’t bring himself to sign the divorce papers. The only really meaningful attachment he has is with Amy (Amy Adams), an old friend whom he once dated years back.

His life changes suddenly when he purchases a new highly advanced Operating System, which calls itself Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) and is soon conversing with Theodore either through his computer or via his phone linked to an earpiece like she’s flesh and blood.

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) bumps into good friend Amy (Amy Adams) and her husband Charles (Matt Letscher) in Her

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) bumps into good friend Amy (Amy Adams) and her husband Charles (Matt Letscher) in Her

Theodore finds himself increasingly drawn to Samantha, who represents everything he could wish for in a woman… except to exist in physical form.

This is Her‘s big question – can a relationship work when two people aren’t physically together? In spite of the film’s digital age outlook, its central conceit has been a staple of screen romances for decades, from Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 classic The Shop Around The Corner, to its e-make You’ve Got Mail.

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) in one of his more melancholic moments in Her

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) in one of his more melancholic moments in Her

Technology, specifically our slavish devotion to it, plays a key role in the film. Whether he’s on the train, in a lift or walking along the street Theodore, like everyone else it seems, is glued to their mobile devices (much like today in fact) or listening to something through their earpiece. It’s little wonder he’s so lonely; he’s surrounded by people who are as lost in their own little world as he is. Although not presented as a dystopia, we’re left to decide for ourselves if this is the kind of future world we’d be happy living in.

In a sad irony, Theodore’s job is to compose handwritten letters of love and devotion for people unable to find the words themselves. In a way, this doesn’t make him too dissimilar to Samantha in that the service he provides is there to help improve a stranger’s life; in some cases over the course of many years as he explains at one point.

Theodore's ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) in Her

Theodore’s ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) in Her

In spite of a few slight eccentricities, Theodore is a character we warm to and come to care about. Phoenix’s eyes convey a sadness and fear that break the heart, while his shuffling gait suggests a guy who’s sleepwalking nowhere in particular. However, with the introduction of Samantha his posture changes, his eyes light up and he radiates a positivity you suspect he hasn’t felt for a long time. Phoenix proved he could really act in The Master and here gives another fascinating take on detachment.

We buy into his relationship with Samantha and this is largely down to Johansson’s (excuse the ironic pun) full-bodied performance. The path they take is, for the large part, a believable one, even when Samantha drafts in a sex surrogate in order for them to enjoy ‘physical’ intimacy.

And happier times. Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) shares a joke with Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johannson) in Her

And happier times. Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) shares a joke with Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johannson) in Her

A big reason the film works is Jonze’s beautifully observed script. Many of us will identify with the melancholy Theodore feels at the passing of a cherished relationship, as well as the fear, happiness and scepticism he experiences when his once dormant heart reignites.

This being a Jonze joint, the film’s aesthetic is painterly. Shanghai steps in for near future LA (where the fashion appears to be for men to wear trousers almost up to their ribcage) and is a perfect fit for Theodore – gleaming surfaces paint a warm sheen over the sadness and remoteness that exists just beneath.

Her treads a well-worn path, but does so in such a wonderfully uncynical and sweet-natured way you’ll be glad you went down it.

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31 comments

  1. ckckred · February 17, 2014

    Nice review. Loved Her, I think it’s Spike Jonze’s best movie to date and he’s done some amazing work. It’s all so believable and real and the ending hit me pretty hard.

    • Three Rows Back · February 18, 2014

      Thanks as always. I would still rate Being John Malkovich ahead the rest, but everything Jonze does is worth serious attention. As for the ending yeah, I loved it. Just perfect.

  2. CMrok93 · February 17, 2014

    Works on many levels, but the main one is as a romance-flick. It may be an odd one, but it’s still beautiful in its small, quirky and subtle ways. Good review.

    • Three Rows Back · February 18, 2014

      “Small, quirky and subtle” is a nice way to describe it. I suspect this is a film that will stay with me for a while. Thanks Dan.

  3. jjames36 · February 18, 2014

    Great review. I quite agree. It is truly surprising how much Jonze (and the cast) make us buy into this unconventional romance.

    • Three Rows Back · February 18, 2014

      Thanks mate. That’s the skill of a gifted filmmaker and committed actors for you!

  4. Joseph@thecinemamonster · February 18, 2014

    I’m not sure if it’s got enough originality and calamity to take best picture of the year, but it’s a film that deserved the nomination. Excellent post, bud :).

    • Three Rows Back · February 18, 2014

      I agree. It’s definitely up there with my best of the last 12 months, but I would have to go with 12 Years a Slave and Inside Llewyn Davis, which I adored. This is still a fantastic work of cinema though. Thanks as always man!

      • Joseph@thecinemamonster · February 18, 2014

        Totally agree, just a stunning feature, also adore Llewyn Davis. Can’t believe it got snubbed!!

      • Three Rows Back · February 18, 2014

        Well, how many classics have been snubbed by Oscar? Too bloody many.

  5. Tom · February 18, 2014

    Beautiful review man. I’m not sure if you’d be willing to place it quite as high as me, but it’s going down as of now as one of my top ten films of all time. I don’t have the most expansive knowledge of the true ‘classics’ and masterpieces out there, but if I were to catch things like Cassablanca, The Godfather Part II (yes, I just admitted to not seeing that yet haha) and the like, Her would have a decent chance of remaining in that line-up. To me, this was simply a marvel. Absolutely adored it from start to finish, as you know already from reading my post. Sounds like you were enamored by it as well. Great news to hear

    • Three Rows Back · February 18, 2014

      Muchos gracias Tom. I wouldn’t say it’s Jonze’s finest film – that’s still Being John Malkovich for me, which I think is a work of art – but it’s certainly one of the finest films of the last 12 months. I loved its dreamy quality and the ending was especially lovely.

  6. Terry Malloy's Pigeon Coop · February 18, 2014

    Lovely review Mark! Hopefully checking this out this week and I’m hugely excited. This looks right up my street.

    • Three Rows Back · February 18, 2014

      I have a sneaking suspicion you’re going to love this Chris! I must say I really, really enjoyed it. Phoenix was superb. Look forward to reading your thoughts.

  7. CinemaClown · February 18, 2014

    In the coming years, this film’s reputation is only going to go up as we’re already on the path of complete social disconnect as depicted in the film. Very good review.

    • Three Rows Back · February 18, 2014

      Thank you my friend. I think we’re already there in many ways; this merely took the logical next step.

      • CinemaClown · February 18, 2014

        I think this film released in way too many countries just recently… Most reviews are coming up now only …My last post was about Her too… And in many ways, it is the most special film of 2013, for me.

  8. Movie Quibble · February 18, 2014

    Excellent review. ‘to its e-make You’ve Got Mail’…, I enjoyed that.

  9. The Northern Plights · February 18, 2014

    I relished its extrapolation; the failed date where he excitedly talks about a gaming incident would make him sound like a dullard to most people, but with the gaming industry being what it is, then surely this will be a realistic and reasonable conversation to have on a date in the near future. Equally, the comparison in explaining she was an OS with today’s admission, ‘I met her online’, was brilliant.

    • Three Rows Back · February 18, 2014

      The thing Jonze is able to do that a lot of other directors aren’t is to build a believable and immersive world, which means we buy into whatever absurd situation (the sex surrogate) he throws at us. Like what you say about today’s “I met her online” admission. Who’d meet someone online, eh?!

  10. chris2508 · February 18, 2014

    Great review. I’m really looking forward to this, it seems like an incredibly heart-warming tale.

    • Three Rows Back · February 18, 2014

      It is, although there’s a melancholic edge too which elevates the film in my opinion. Hope you enjoy as much as I did.

  11. mikeyb @ screenkicker · February 18, 2014

    Looking foward to it. Was worried it would be overly ‘quirky’ but you’ve made it sound great

    • Three Rows Back · February 18, 2014

      I hope it stands up for you then! I’m confident you’ll really like this.

  12. ruth · February 18, 2014

    Beautiful review of one of my fave film of last year… and perhaps of all time. I was so engrossed in the story and characters. Amen on what you said about Johansson’s excellent performance as Samantha, kudos to her! I really should see Being John Malkovich real soon!

    • Three Rows Back · February 18, 2014

      Ah, thanks Ruth. I wouldn’t place it as highly as you, but it’s still fantastic. As for Being John Malkovich, you need to remedy that one ASAP!

  13. Mark Walker · February 19, 2014

    Great work Mark. I absolutely loved this. A true original and my favourite film of the year. I doubt the oscars will be kind to it but I at least expect a screenplay award.

  14. Zoë · February 20, 2014

    Great review Mark! I hear such good things about this movie, yet when you read what it is about briefly it is a bizarre concept, yet it seems to work. I hope that I see it soon so that I will know what everyone is on about!

  15. Lights Camera Reaction · March 1, 2014

    One of the most original and unique films I’ve seen in a long, long time. Spike Jonze is a creative and fascinating filmmaker who has written and directed his most complete and poignant film yet. Jonze tells the story of a lonely man, without falling into a cliche zone we’ve seen in other romantic films. Lovely review, and glad you liked the film.

    • Three Rows Back · March 1, 2014

      Thanks very much; appreciate the kind words. Your summation pretty much nails it, although I still feel Being John Malkovich is a better picture.

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