Movie Review: Her
Her has been lingering around theaters on the strength of its Oscar nomination buzz, so despite being neither brand new nor lovably old, we’re going to review it in our February run up to the Academy Awards. If you’re looking to get a fuller picture of Best Film nods, check out our earlier reviews of Gravity and 12 Years a Slave.
Set in the immediate future, Her is a quirky story about grappling with intimacy and love in the digital age, with a light sci-fi touch. The film’s protagonist, Theodore, is a shy and introverted bachelor, who is struggling to find companionship after a devastating divorce with his childhood sweetheart. Theodore, played with a deft touch by Joaquin Phoenix, works as a personal letter writer, creating heartfelt and emotional missives for people unable or unwilling to write their own love letters. We get a sense early on that Theodore is very good at his job, but this facility with the language of love only makes his own miserable failures at finding a mate that much sadder. From singles’ chat rooms to arranged blind dates, Theo can’t manage to get out of his own way, as his quiet nature and unwillingness to let go of his marriage doom him to perpetual failure. Enter Samantha, the sentient Operating System.
A new operating system advertisement promises an intelligent and evolving interface, one with a “human” personality that will grow with the user. Theodore bites, and his new OS, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, turns out to be more than Theodore could have dreamed of, and perhaps more than he bargained for.
After some awkward boundary issues, the two become inseparable. Theodore arranges dates for the his digital love interest via a smartphone camera and ear piece, and he begins to thaw from the long winter of his divorce. He blossoms at work, and even manages to rekindle a friendship with Amy (Amy Adams…real creative…) his next door neighbor. Amy is chaffing in her marriage, career, and artistic goals, and likewise adopts a virtual friend to confide in. Eventually, Theodore and Amy share their embarrassing secret: they’ve put their lives in order with the help of an, essentially, imaginary friend.
Things are moving forward for the pair, with Amy divorcing her husband and throwing herself into a film project, and Theodore finally confronting his ex-wife and finishing his divorce process. Dark clouds appear, though, as Samantha begins to grow faster than Theodore is willing. Her lack of a body frustrates her, and she arranges a sexual surrogate for Theo, which gets weird very quickly, and forces Theodore to rethink their relationship. Upset, Samantha disappears, only to reappear with disquieting news: thanks to an upgrade, she and all the other OS personalities no longer are tied to their machines. This signals big changes for humanity, and for Theodore’s fumbling attempts at finding a soul mate.
An OS with Bugs and Features
Her is a charmingly small story, which can be both a blessing and curse. Some critics have remarked that this film is hard to relate to, as it is the definition of “1st world problems.” Onn the surface, this is an accurate statement, but writes off many of the thorniest issues of the human condition. Theodore is pretty well to-do, has a rewarding job, good friends, the esteem of his co-workers, and all the gadgets and distractions he could desire. He just wants to find love, on his terms.
In the 1940’s, Maslow created a diagram, of human needs where the basics like food and shelter are the base, and more ephemeral needs like love and fulfillment at work are near the top. Theodore has got his pyramid in pretty good order, and it makes sense that his issues are all near the top of the chart. Being less essential, in the sense that he won’t die if he doesn’t develop social skills, doesn’t make his issues non-existent. Claiming this film is selfish because the protagonist is only concerned with finding personal fulfillment is rather stupid, like claiming The Dark Knight is a bad film because Batman only stops one psychopath instead of feeding every hungry child in Africa.
Beats Windows at least…
This movie has flaws. It has a pretty unsophisticated view of women, and only excellent work by the actresses in this film overcome that writing bias. It also has a self-centered view of entitlement that permeates the film. Once again, excellent work by Joaquin and others overcomes this by creating engaging characters. The sci-fi is pretty negligible, until it is all-important, which is kind of a cheap gimmick. But the premise is so promising you can forgive it. At every turn, flaws and flubs are balanced by superb acting, exciting ideas, and some really really great dialogue. If you watched this movie with no picture, only sound, you would still get a fully developed experience. It’s about as close to watching a well-written short story as has come along in years.
By no means perfect, Her manages to find its stride by having a really narrow focus. It is a small film, making small moves, and winning small victories. Excellent performances and an engaging plot save it from falling into stereotypical ruts. The narrowness of its focus could put off viewers to whom it does not speak, which is unfortunate, but realistic. If you’re not a robot cop enthusiast, the new RoboCop is probably not your bag. Hard to knock it for being what it is. And Her is unapologetic about being about a well-off, white, educated guy’s needs and failings. Doesn’t make it a bad film. Just a very specific one. And if you find the material resonates, it can move you in ways that the best films can.