Have you ever seen a movie that you were rooting for?
When I saw the trailer for Spike Jonze's Her, I was hooked on the premise. What could have been a simple sitcom punchline (which they actually did on The Big Bang Theory), the movie takes the premise seriously. And I knew that it would either be great or terrible.
Her takes place in the not-to-distant future. Theodore Twombly (Joaquim Phoenix) is a soon to be divorced writer who is lost in his own lonliness. He purchases a new artificially intelligent operating system Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Theodore's lonliness causes him to retreat more and more inward and open up to Samantha, who because she is artificially intelligent, is essentially a self aware program. Imagine a more seductive HAL 9000. As the two of them draw closer together and more and more intimate, they are drawn into a complex and emotional star-crossed labyrinth of emotion.
The best thing about Her are the performances. Phoenix did not get nominated for an Oscar, which I think is a shame because it is one of this best performances. He tends to be overly mannered in the movies he is in. But I enjoyed the quiet subtlety of his Theodore. It isn't that he was restrained. He tapped some very deep emotions. It was that he knew when to go big and when to take it down. It was fascinating to watch his crippling shyness with others, but then you see his vulnerability and ecstasy with Samantha. Johansson has been getting rave reviews for her voice work, and rightly so. Samantha is a powerful presence in the movie, but Johansson has to bring as much reality and humanity to a character without a body. This isn't like giving voice to an animated character, where the actor has visual reference. Johansson has to bring all of the emotional complexity of a main character without most of the tools in an actor's arsenal. Amy Adams also does a nice job Theodore's longtime friend and neighbor and Chris Pratt brings a good deal of comic relief as Theodore's coworker.
I appreciated that the movie takes this human/technology romance seriously. I really think that this is going to be an issue going forward with more human-like technology.
But the biggest problem with the movie is that it is, at root, tedious and boring. Jonze does a good job of beautifully visualizing his story with great use of color and light. But the story lacks something very important: a reason to root for the characters. I could not find myself caring about Theodore's problems or Samantha's increasing neurosis. Bottom line: if you take away the fact that Samantha is an AI, Her is just another self-involved independent movie examining the complexity of romantic relationship (i.e. it is pretentious and depressing).
Part of the problem comes from the philosophy of love used here. The Greeks has 4 different words for love: storge (simple affection), eros (romantic desire), phileo (friendship), and agape (completely selflessness for another. Her is an exploration of eros between a man and an AI. But it never grows from there. Eros is all about feeling and emotion. At its highest and lowest, Theodore and Samantha's relationship is all about how the other makes them feel. It never gets to a higher live like phileo or, more importantly, agape. Maybe that was part of the filmmaker's point. But he seems to imply a selfish philosophy to love that never grows beyond the desire for another person to make me feel good. This is reflected in the other characters as well, like Adams' character who ends her marriage because she is annoyed with her husband.
But as the movie drags on, this emotional strain pulls the movie further and further away from me because I could see underneath it the inherent selfishness in all of the characters. By the time the story moves towards its inevitable conclusion, I found myself counting down the time that I no longer had to spend time with these characters.
On top of that, the movie is unnecessarily filthy. I don't mind salty language, but it seemed over the top. Also, there are some graphic sexual conversations that were uncomfortable to watch, along with some unexpected nudity.
Her is a great experiment. But it mostly feels like a wasted opportunity.
2 and 1/2 out of 5 stars