Director: Spike Jonze
Major Players: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson (voice only), Amy Adams
Out Of Five? 3.5
Last year the American Academy got it in the neck for snubbing Ben Affleck. This year it’s BAFTA’s turn to get the flack for overlooking two films. One of them was released last week – Dallas Buyers Club, with neither of its Oscar contenders, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, finding their way onto the shortlist. And now we have the other one – Spike Jonze’s Her, which seems to be quietly and methodically collecting Best Screenplay awards (of the original variety) as it rolls along. It opens in UK cinemas, not coincidentally, on Valentine’s Day.
This futuristic romance has already picked up Golden Globe and Writers Guild of America awards for its script and is now considered a strong contender for the Original Screenplay gong at the Oscars next month. Set in the near future, we follow Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is recovering from a painful divorce and leads a solitary life, working for a company that writes personal letters for special occasions for people who just don’t have the knack or inclination. He signs up for a new personalised computer operating system and develops a relationship with Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), the ‘female’ he is allocated. Then he finds himself falling in love with her ……
Jonze himself wrote the screenplay. This is the man who worked with the great Charlie Kaufman on Adaptation and Being John Malkovitch and, although Kaufman wasn’t involved in this project, you sense his shadow hovering somewhere in the background, if only because of its quirkiness. This time that left field approach puts relationships under the microscope, especially ones conducted online – and takes them one step further.
The lonely Twombly hasn’t had much luck with his love life although, given that he’s a geek of the first order, he seems to attract very attractive women (his ex is played by Rooney Mara, a possible love interest comes in the form of Olivia Wilde and his friend is Amy Adams). His marriage has collapsed, the date doesn’t go well and, as far as his friend Amy (Amy Adams) is concerned, he can’t see what’s going on under his nose. But Samantha, his OS, seems just as real as any of them, and she’s his perfect woman. She sorts out his life for him online, he can talk to her at any time of day or night, she seems to understand him totally, she makes him laugh, she’s loyal and unconditionally caring. What’s not to like – or fall in love with? Especially when her sultry voice belongs to Scarlett Johansson.
That, of course, is the problem. She’s just a computer operating system and a voice. She doesn’t genuinely have feelings but, because she’s so convincing, Theodore falls into the easy trap of believing she’s for real and is so wrapped up in their relationship that he accepts it as normal. And, as we discover, he’s not the only one. As he walks around the city, he’s surrounded by thirtysomethings who appear to be talking to themselves but, in fact, are talking to their OS. Some might be ‘lovers’, others could be friends, like his Amy, whose best friend is her OS (they’re both female and both straight, so the chances of complications are minimal).
Although the relationship between Theodore and Samantha is, ultimately, artificial, the film plots a course that reflects a real love affair, starting with the bliss that goes with new love and then descending into deep and meaningful conversations to restore that initial thrill. Disillusionment follows quickly – for Theodore, it’s the realisation that Samantha is the personal OS to 8,000 other people. Despite what he thought, he’s not the only man in her life: she’s in 500 other ‘relationships’. She’s a computer, after all.
It’s a neat and intriguing premise, with a number of layers, although Jonze rightly doesn’t attempt to explore all of them, avoiding the temptation to complicate matters. It’s also more than feasible, as the role of personal computers continues to grow. And the smart, sometimes delicate, screenplay is well served by its cast. Joaquin Phoenix is back on form as the complex, awkward but not unsympathetic Twombly. Scarlett Johansson voice acts a seductive OS with wit, intelligence and charm, even though the audience never forgets the one thing that Twombly soon starts to overlook. She’s not real. And Olivia Wilde has the energy and sparkle that we saw last year in Drinking Buddies.
The parting of the ways for Theodore and Samantha comes abruptly, not unlike some real life relationships. The OS system shuts down. And everybody who was using it is left without their lover/friend/whatever. For once, Theodore isn’t alone, although he feels as though he is. The other people around him in the city continue to be faceless blurs, as they have been throughout the film. The only difference is that now, like Theodore, they’re not talking to anybody.
Her goes on general release around the UK on Friday, 14 February.