Her Not Here

Review of Her, Directed by Spike Jonze

By ABE TIMLER

Her, the latest of Spike Jonze’s highly unconventional films, retains the quirky, independent personality and the relentless preoccupation with psychological discovery that marked his much celebrated Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation (2002), and Where the Wild Things Are (2009). Equally owned by Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Theodore Twombly, this two-hour examination of romance (albeit one lacking the necessary reciprocating other) is uniquely accomplished. Phoenix successfully develops a nuanced take on loneliness and being resigned to mediocrity.

We enter Theo’s future existence during the latter stages of a failing marriage and the corresponding early stages of divorce paperwork. Though the viewer is never privy to the history leading up to Theo’s divorce, it can be guessed by his casual, in-the-moment approach to woman that his marriage wasn’t built to last. When his social uncertainties are further exacerbated by disappointing dates, hectic with the unspoken demands reminiscent of his abandoned marriage, his finds his last romantic outlet in a companionable operating system self-named Samantha. Samantha organizes his email, prioritizes his workload, and together, like a real couple, they people-watch, play video games, and laugh over embarrassing confessions.

Among the triumphs of Her is how it walks the tight rope between science fiction and real life. Samantha is mass-released far enough into the future to be freshly explored as the last-frontier of social media, yet not so far ahead that “Samantha” can’t be comfortably dismissed as fantasy, something requiring too many technological evolutions. More importantly, Samantha can’t be dismissed because she, or something like her (or it) is happening to our culture now: the mass technological substitution for human relationships. Samantha already looks like what we have in smartphones: a handheld device equipped with a camera and speaker. She rides in Theo’s shirt pocket and provides running commentary on what she sees of LA. When Theo temporarily loses access to Samantha for several hours, his ensuing meltdown echoes a familiar panic—the one we get when we lose connectivity.

Her wisely avoids moralizing over the human impact of our smart phones and instead matter-of-factly pieces together what it would be like to advance from online dating to dating the coded essence of online itself. If Samantha, despite her laments to Theo that her growing feelings for him might only be the response of careful programming, can create an instantaneous romantic environment, then it’s clear enough people will fall for her.

On a side note, the futuristic rendition of Los Angeles, fantastically reimagined with an above ground mass transit and today’s LA skyline cross-populated with Shanghai’s, has to be praised; however, be warned, the graphic, immoral context of conversations and highly vulgar language that dominates the first half of “Her” (and warrants the easily avoidable R rating) ruins the recommendation I’d otherwise have for “Her.”

Without giving too much away, the film’s last step is to show that technology-driven romance is as relationally unsustainable as two humans giving up interaction. In other words, Theo’s very effectively depicted loneliness is rooted in having no authentic relationships with real people and no human object toward that which he does experience anything authentic.

The primary takeaway from Her is this: it is always worth pushing through the lulls in the course of a friendship because they are only temporary struggles common to one human being relating to another, not final failures to retreat from. Not only does his marriage fail, but Theo’s contact with fellow characters is neglected in favor of momentary technological gratification, the lasting result of which is isolation.