(An edited version of this was first published in The New Indian Express)
Spike Jonze’s Her may go under the science fiction column but that’s not the only reason we see colorful offices, trains whizzing through business districts, sky kissing towers and lot of concrete all around. Even Theodore Twombly’s (Joaquin Phoenix) bedroom has huge glass walls looking up at these towers from all sides. In such a universe, Theodore’s aloof, loner, on the brink of divorce self falling in love with an evolving operating system (called Samantha with Scarlett Johansson’s voice, no less) doesn’t seem farfetched. But it makes a larger point about mechanical relationships that exist today even while the needs and wants of individuals remain the same. The only scene closer to nature is at the beach soon after Theodore and Samantha awkwardly acknowledge feelings for each other. It’s one of the few moments Theodore isn’t a depressed mess and even the world around him is in its more cheery, fun self.
The philosophical conundrum of the film is established in an early scene when Theodore meets his friend and neighbor Amy (Amy Adams) and her partner. Theodore’s smoothie makes her partner remark how it is good to live by the adage, ” Eat your fruits, juice your vegetables” meaning the fiber in fruits is what you need and when you juice them it’s just worthless sugar. Amy offers a counterargument saying maybe the sugar is what he likes and if it makes him happy it is probably good for his body. Jonze wrestles with such questions here and he constructs a world that’s so different from anything we inhabit yet looks much the same. Also this is not the typical dystopian world of other science fiction films. It’s bright and colorful and people here have everything at their disposal. Except maybe contact. Some real human contact and invested relationships. They send letters and emails to each other but they outsource the job of writing them to people like Theodore. The film’s palette is rich in variety and everything on screen seems coordinated. This is a beautifully designed film and that this brings out the contradictions between the mood of the surroundings and that of its characters is astounding. It also brings out the mismatch in the film’s main relationship.
Jonze makes some curious decisions along the way. In the beginning there is a muted but possibly loaded moment when Theodore is setting up the operating system. A grim computer voice asks him, “Would you like your OS to have male or female voice?” There is almost a second or two that Theodore thinks and says assuredly, “Female, yes.” But later when the anomaly in the relationship with an operating system shows up Theodore is a mess sitting on the subway staircase. He observes other men – one of those curious decisions from Jonze, only men – lost into their ear pieces smiling, animated, clearly at peace and possibly in love. Had Jonze not established this bigger picture the personal nature of the story would have been more axiomatic. This leads to such questions as is this a story only of Theodore? Is it the story of men? Especially men not only looking for love but also sympathy no matter their limitations? Or a more slippery territory of it being a story of men like Theodore and women like Samantha?
Joaquin Phoenix delivers one of the performances of the year and one that is understated by his usual standards. Most of the time it is all about literally talking to himself and he plays off his confused emotional wreck to perfection. Scarlett Johansson’s intoxicating voice for a computer is masterstroke. There is that quality to her voice where there is a constant falling off the cliff feeling like her voice could trail off to silence at any moment as if the computer has suddenly crashed. One misgiving about Her is that we come off knowing little about the women. There is Amy providing Theodore emotional support but you can’t help but feel that she could have said more. She leaves you with one lasting line that seems to encapsulate the film, “I’ve just come to realize that we’re only here briefly. And while I’m here, I wanna allow myself joy.”