Her Review: To Siri, With Love 

Thursday, Dec 19 2013

The terrible reality of modern life is that even beautiful young people on a first date can't go a whole evening without checking their phones. We need to be potentially connected to every possibility at all times; just allowing the present to happen has become increasingly foreign. That's the idea Spike Jonze is scratching at in his futuristic romance, Her, in which Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, an about-to-be-divorced Los Angeles writer who falls in love with an operating system, one designed not only to run his laptop and devices but also to help him get through life; it intuits and meets his every need.

That setup might sound weirder than it is: The voice of this OS — she calls herself Samantha — is Scarlett Johansson's, and if you heard it, shimmering into your brain through an earpiece all day, every day, as Theodore does, you'd fall in love with it, too.

That voice is very real. The complication is that it belongs not to an actual woman but to an algorithmic construct. In case you haven't guessed, Theodore is using technology to avoid the pain of real human connection. And that's the problem with Her, too: Jonze is so entranced with his central conceit that he can barely move beyond it.

Related Stories

This is a movie about a benumbed person, which itself feels chloroformed, zonked out, even in those moments when Jonze is clearly striving for depth of feeling. Its metaphors are more obvious than the bricks that cruel mouse Ignatz used to hurl at poor, lovelorn Krazy Kat yet not nearly as direct. Instead of just being desperately heartfelt, Her keeps reminding us — through cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema's somber-droll camera work, through Phoenix's artfully slumped shoulders — how desperately heartfelt it is.

Theodore knows, just as you do, that real-life relationships are messier than anything we can channel through a handheld device. He still misses his soon-to-be–ex-wife (a desperately human prickly pear played by Rooney Mara), and his close platonic confidante (a colorlessly likable Amy Adams) has plenty of troubles of her own.

But he just can't help his infatuation with Samantha. She isn't supposed to have feelings, but, thanks to some miracle of science, she returns Theodore's affections. The two embark on rambling adventures through the city — Theodore tucks the Samantha-pod device in his shirt pocket, so she can peek out at the world through a little lens. She's a girlfriend you can literally keep in your pocket. The relationship is too good, and too wrong, to last.

But even as he acknowledges the uncontrollability of human relationships, Jonze never does anything so passionate as let go. There are many, many feelings stuck into Her, pincushion-style, but the result is a kind of overstuffed stupefaction. Jonze and Van Hoytema take great care with the visuals, working hard to hit notes of longing and mournfulness. At one point, a shot of airborne, sunlit dust motes transmutes into a field of falling snowflakes. How serene! How lovely! But what do dust motes have to do with snowflakes? Sometimes a technical trick can be too gorgeous, so previsualized that it comes off as a contrivance.

Much of the dialogue sounds premeditated, too. (This is the first picture Jonze has written as well as directed.) There's an old journalism rule about always using "says," never "opines" or "sighs." Her opines and sighs all over the place. "Sometimes I think I've felt everything I'm ever going to feel," Theodore confides glumly to Samantha. "And from here on out, I'm not going to feel anything new. Just lesser versions of what I've already felt."

In the guise of being direct, the movie is actually maddeningly coy.

We're supposed to feel so much for Theodore in his Tom Selleck mustache, oh-so-winsomely plucking at a ukulele as he lounges in his underfurnished bachelor apartment; his life is as empty as his bookshelves.

Phoenix is sometimes an astonishing actor, and not just when he's playing Johnny Cash; working with director James Gray in particular, in pictures like Two Lovers and We Own the Night, he has given astute, resonant performances, stripped of fussy mannerisms. But in Her, he's a stylized, mumbly drifter, so attached to his performance that he's barely attached to us.

Johansson's voice, as plush and light-reflecting as velveteen, is the movie's saving grace; Samantha is the one character in Her who seems capable of delight. Samantha Morton was originally cast in the role and had completed the movie when, at the last minute, Jonze substituted Johansson. Morton is a terrific actress, but in this instance Jonze's instincts were golden. The movie isn't just unimaginable without Johansson — it might have been unbearable without her.

Theodore doesn't know what he wants, and probably fears that even if he knew, he wouldn't be able to get it. What human being hasn't felt that way? But it's hard to respond to on-screen romantic trauma and feelings of disconnection when they're so wan and wispy. There are whole chunks of Her, so arduously layered with soft-focus pain and cautious happiness, that could have been lifted from those '80s phone commercials touting the benefits of "staying connected." Theodore, like James Stewart in Vertigo, is in love with an illusion. The difference is that this spectacle and all its ideas would fit on the screen of your iPod.

HER | Written and directed by Spike Jonze | Warner Bros. | Landmark, AMC Century City, ArcLight Hollywood

Reach the writer at szacharek@villagevoice.com

Related Content

Rated R · 120 min. · 2013
Official Site: www.herthemovie.com
Director: Spike Jonze
Writer: Spike Jonze
Producer: Megan Ellison, Vincent Landay and Spike Jonze
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Amy Adams, Samantha Morton, Caroline Jaden Stussi, Laura Meadows and Portia Doubleday

Now Playing

Sorry there are no upcoming showtimes for Her

Now Showing

  1. Thu 10
  2. Fri 11
  3. Sat 12
  4. Sun 13
  5. Mon 14
  6. Tue 15
  7. Wed 16

    Find capsule reviews, showtimes & tickets for all films in town.

    Sponsored by Fandor

Box Office

Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes

Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, concert and dining info & more!


  • 10 Movies You Should See This Summer
    The phrase "summer movies" will never not mean broad, action-driven crowd-pleasers to me: I counted the days until Batman (June 23, 1989), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (July 3, 1991), and Jurassic Park (June 11, 1993) were released. For every Dark Knight there are 10 Prometheuses — and that's just among the films that are actually trying to be good — but the hype and anticipation of summer movies remains a fun spectator sport. (More fun than sports, anyway.) Here, 10 from Memorial Day weekend and after for which I have, as the song says, high hopes. By Chris Klimek
  • Doc Docs: 8 Powerful Medical Documentaries
    Code Black is the latest in a string of powerful documentaries examining the domestic health care system's flaws and profiling its physicians, caretakers and patients. In this film -- which will be released in select theaters on June 20 -- the cameras are pointed at the nation's busiest emergency room, that of L.A. County Hospital. Here are seven moving medical docs. Click on the film name to read the full review.

    See also:
    35 Music Documentaries Worth Seeing

    15 Documentaries That Help You Understand the World Right Now
  • Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel in Lego
    A Lego replica of The Grand Budapest Hotel was unveiled this past Saturday, June 14, by builder Ryan Ziegelbauer and star of the film Tony Revolori at The Grove in L.A. Ziegelbaur and his team built the 7-foot, 150-pound structure from over 50,000 Lego bricks. The celebration was held in honor of the Blu-Ray and DVD release of Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel on June 17th by Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. All photos by Mary Bove.

Movie Trailers

View all movie trailers >>

Now Trending