Throughout my conversations with fellow film enthusiasts over the years, I have often come across those who will scoff at the idea of King Kong and Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) being one of the greatest film romances. If you find that you fall into this category of scoffers, perhaps Spike Jonze’s latest cinematic endeavor, “Her,” (2013) is not the film for you. True, there are no large, savage apes attempting to woo Miss Darrow in this film, but the unlikely romance between a seemingly ordinary man and his sultry, intelligent operating system does prove to be just as complicated…and just as sweet.
Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is an average, intelligent man, living in Southern California, at some point in the not-so-distant future. He is a sad, lonely man, trying to come to terms with his separation and pending divorce from his life-long love, Catherine (Rooney Mara). He works as a surrogate card writer for those who are unable to find the right words to talk to their loved ones, but since his life has begun spiraling downward, he finds that he lacks some of his lyrical creativity from the past.
In order to bring some order back into his life (or perhaps just to break up the monotony of evenings spent playing video games and having phone sex with random women), Theodore gets himself an operating system who calls herself Samantha (seductively voiced by Scarlett Johansson). There is an instantaneous connection between Theodore and Samantha, but (for obvious reasons) neither of them are quite sure how to move their relationship forward. Theodore embraces his new love, but is wary of the long-term complications that come attached. He does feel somewhat better after sharing the true facts of his new girlfriend with his long-time friend and neighbor, Amy (Amy Adams), who sees the advantages to Theodore’s situation, whilst experiencing marital problems of her own.
The numerous problems that come from having an actual relationship with an operating system seem obvious, but it’s not that simple. After all, every argument that one can make for why it doesn’t work can be thrown right out the window the moment that you see the way Theodore lights up when he hears Samantha’s voice, and by the joy that they share just being together. I can’t sit here and say that it isn’t weird to watch them evolve as a couple, but I would be lying to say that I wasn’t rooting for their love to last.
Of course there are three, somewhat simple reasons, that watching this film and these characters is so easy to do. Firstly, we have the great Joaquin Phoenix. There are a handful of actors working today that possess the dedication and ability to pull off any role at any time, and Phoenix is one of them. So much of this film requires him to sit, or stand, or walk somewhere while talking to Samantha, but the only thing that he can play off of is her voice. There are no eyes to stare into as he tenderly speaks his lines, no mouth to kiss while he lies in bed. He is alone, even when he is with her. In one of many famous scenes in the classic “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952), actress Lina Lamont (Jean Hagan) yells to her director that it’s hard to face the microphone while playing her love scene because, “Well, I can’t make love to a bush!” Perhaps Lina can’t, but Joaquin Phoenix sure can. I don’t even know where he would begin to prepare for a role such is this, and the fact that he makes it looks so easy is a true credit to himself as an actor.
The second reason is filmmaker extraordinaire Spike Jonze. Love his films or hate them, you have to appreciate his creative abilities. His stories, characters, direction, dialogue, and even his song this time around (The Moon Song) all come from a creative place that most of us will never be able to fathom. He is a true visionary at a time when the cinematic world needs his gift dearly, and “Her” is just his latest in a line of immensely creative films, but it is also his best.
And then lastly we have Scarlett Johansson. Well, not Scarlett herself, but her voice anyway. I have always been of the opinion that voice acting doesn’t fall into the same league as physical acting. Even the best of voice performances can’t capture the same kind of passion and intensity, right? Wrong. In fact I couldn’t have been more wrong. Scarlett Johansson plays a character that is basically trying to prove that she is more than just a voice, and that is exactly what she has done. She is not a just a voice, she is a character, and a well-played one at that.
“Her” is not a film for everyone, although I think everyone could take something from “Her”. In a world that continues to put technological progress on the front burner, it is not hard to imagine Theodore and Samantha’s world one day becoming a reality. And if their world can be real, so can their unusual, but unorthodox love. And all without any tragic end atop the Empire State Building.