Set in the not-so distant future in Los Angeles, the sorbet of loud colors, high-waisted pants and some interesting (yet believable) technological developments are the only indicators of a passage in time. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) walks alone from his Ikea-inspired office to the train, advised by his ear piece of what emails he received through the day and the latest in celebrity gossip. On the way there, and really throughout the film when Theodore wanders the city, you see people passing much like him: solitary men and women talking into their inner-ear piece. As Her progresses, its image of the solitary and lonely man in Theodore enters into a discourse on the universality of loneliness and its relationship with technology, positing this central question: Will technology change the way we are fundamentally?
Underscoring Theodore’s melancholy is the fact that he’s going through a divorce, or rather, he’s prolonging the process. As he comes to grips with the impending necessity of his separation (as his operating system tells him, he’s getting some hassling emails from her lawyers), Theodore occupies himself with his day job that involves writing romantic letters on behalf of clients. Spike Jonze includes this profession as a critical element in understanding Theodore’s painstaking romanticism while blurring the lines of his emotionality itself. Is his love merely a product of artificiality dispensed for his profession or is it something genuine?
To appropriately describe Theodore’s romance with his Operating System Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) would do a disservice of Joaquin Phoenix’s perpetually on-edge acting, Scarlett Johansson’s pitch-perfect vocal performance, and Spike Jonze’s emotionally astute sensibilities. Like all of Jonze’s films there’s a great deal of inner conflict at the heart of Her but it functions as his most affecting work. Whereas the broiling cynicism of Charlie Kaufman’s screenplays often sees him tossing everything into his writing, Jonze takes things one step at a time, addressing the emotional punctuations of his central characters before embarking on grandiose themes of universality. Jonze has sole writings credit for Her and it truly resonates as a personal picture that has all of him tossed in there, particularly in his grasp of tackling loneliness and the painstaking formalities of dating and divorce.
Back to the central relationship between Theodore and Samantha: without a body, much of the heavy lifting is left to Phoenix to express the trials and tribulations in their relationship. Their courtship is one of such inherent sweetness where Samantha looks at the world with such befuddled happiness with Theodore happy to oblige her questions and requests. The natural rhythms of their conversation defy logic in their spontaneity and beauty, always managing to maintain a particular tone of sincerity. Conversely, Her develops into a film of where Theodore is continuously retreating back to Samantha and therefore, his own head. It becomes a particular nasty point where Theodore opens up to the few friends and coworkers that he has, expressing his love for Samantha. The abstract and atypical nature of their relationship, and essentially coming out of the closet to admit this, bares some striking, albeit obvious, social parallels that nonetheless work effectively.
Whatever Jonze’s intentions are, whether they are to tell a love story or comment on contemporary society’s growing dependence on technology, or some potpourri of both, it’s clear that Her is a work of immense personal investment. The film is dedicated to some of his contemporaries that recently passed away, including Maurice Sendak and James Gandolfini. Jonze captures the plights of loneliness and the deranged whimsy of finding solace and escape in technology itself. Whether or not technology has changed our behavior isn’t my place to say, but based on my experience; it certainly helps with coping.