Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

Joaquim Phoenix in Her
"It is in these details, the small objects Jonze provides us with in his film of disembodied desires, that essences become distilled."

In Her, Spike Jonze elegantly summons the most attractive kind of future - the one not close enough to have us feel burdened by existential quotidian fears and not far enough to become unfeeling science fiction reverie. The non-specified timing is just right, to quote Goldilocks, whose three old chairs found their way into the centre of a futuristic living room. Jonze knows a thing or two about handling bear-like creatures, at least since his collaboration with the late great Maurice Sendak on Where The Wild Things Are (2009).

Joaquin Phoenix, mustached, forlorn, big grey-hazel eyes looking at the world through grey-hazel rimmed horn glasses, plays Theodore, a lost boy-man who lives in a very attractive and mostly car-less LA, in a heavenly apartment overlooking the lights. The high-rise elevator shaft resembles a beanstalk. His year of birth could be 2014. Theodore's last name is Twombly, maybe because he sees himself as an artist and maybe because of onomatopoetic links to the way he speaks and walks.

He meanders to work from the Beverly Wilshire Tower on well-designed, relaxing paths that resemble New York City's High Line, above the cars, and among friendly people who talk to each other or to the visually unobtrusive intelligences they carry with them. No more white cords hanging from ears, no more clenched fists holding on to their devices for dear life.

He works in a spacious, tasteful office of glassy Mondrian panes in pinks and warm yellows, where employees dictate personal heartfelt "handwritten" letters for hire into their computers. Jonze sets the scene beautifully in a society where no one seems to be the least bit taken aback by the contradiction in love letters or grand-parental greetings composed by professionals, auto-written by a machine.

When the sound design lets the voices of the co-workers overlap, the tone recalls that of the book people in the final scene of François Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451 (1966), his first film not in black and white which also takes place in a not very distant future, where screens rule every household and red is more than a colour. Ray Bradbury ended his novel with the lines: "At sunrise, I'm out again, giving it the old try. And no one can help me. Not even you."

The title credit for Her looks like one of those computer security devices that checks if you are a human being or a machine trying to gain access.

The tone of Her is never sinister, it is normal. No horrors are lurking beneath the sunny surface, as they do in H.G. Wells' Time Machine, and cynicism has become old fashioned. In Her, the surface is nice and the horror is lonely. Connect me, please, is the silent scream of the future.

Theodore is surrounded by gorgeous women. His ex-wife Catherine is played by Rooney Mara, whom we mostly see in flashbacks, products of his longings in images resembling those of Mara's woman in love at the start of David Lowery's Ain't Them Bodies Saints, only that here she wears beautiful sweaters or a traffic cone as a clown's hat. Theodore remembers her playfulness, and when we actually get to see her in a single scene of his present, she makes a lot of sense. He wanted her to be a bouncy LA wife and "real emotions" are still too hard to handle for him.

His neighbour and old friend Amy is played by Amy Adams, who looks terrific in the casual clothes and hairstyle of the future. Phoenix and Adams who were last seen together on screen in Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master have several tenderly delightful interactions, one of them a council session of how to play a video game and gain extra-perfect-mom-points by not overfeeding the game children sugary cereal. "Be Perfect" it says in big letters down the side of a shelf in her office.

Parenthood is the theme of games and news. To relax, Theodore likes to play a holographic game called Alien Child, no screens necessary. The foulmouthed, big headed extraterrestrial toddler is voiced by Jonze himself, Kafka's gatekeeper and the Pillsbury Doughboy rolled into one.

Theodore's first and only meeting with Blind Date played by Olivia Wilde takes place in a restaurant that is part inside of an earth worm, part paper lantern, white, bending and wonderful to watch in its very strangeness. She talks about her puppy, he talks about Alien Child. He says she is a tiger and doesn't want to be her "puppy dog" but "a dragon that can rip you apart". Back at home after a less than agreeable goodbye, he is so afraid that he can never feel anything new again, "only lesser versions" of the old.

Production designer K.K. Barrett in his fourth collaboration with Jonze, after Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Where The Wild Things Are, deserves an Oscar nomination for making Her's spirit of place so plausible and desirable, all the better to taunt us with.

SexyKitten, whose voice (that of Kristen Wiig) Theodore chooses one night for entertainment to chat with for falling asleep has specific tastes. "Choke me with that dead cat next to the bed," ends the budding romance. The expression on Phoenix's face is priceless.

Casey Storm's costumes are phenomenal and, I predict, will make the movie a style reference for years to come. The pants come high in the waist, comfortable, cosy at the hips, and elegant, more Gene Kelly in the late Forties than Fred Astaire, especially when combined with the boxy jacket shape. Woody Allen's Manhattan look and a few Eighties sprinkles round out the eternal return of fashions. Some shirts have lost their collars, lapels are small, the colours bright. At least for Theodore, who gets a lot of wear out of his four favorite shirts he likes to layer and whose pockets he adorns with a safety pin, so that his new beloved can see the world with him.

Which finally brings us to Her, latest individualised computer operating system, who names herself Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) and who becomes the bodiless love interest the hero falls for. "In every moment I'm evolving, just like you," she coos in a vaguely raspy voice. "Oh good, I'm funny," she says when he laughs at her comments. She does good work for him, because she reads in lightning speed, sorts his e-mail, makes corrections and together they fantasise that she has a body.

"Not ready to commit," not even to a machine, Theodore slowly but surely falls into the new. The bookshelves in his apartment are bare, only one visible spine reads Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov's masterpiece of formal innovation.

Helping a machine to discover the ability to want is encouraged in a time when it is socially acceptable to fall in love with your OS. Samantha is excited to test drive her wisdoms. "The past is just a story we tell ourselves."

Samantha finds him a body surrogate, a hint of the sadness of Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid hides underneath the enthusiasm. The surrogate she chose gets an artificial grain de beauté, to build an object-cause-of desire that isn't really there.

It is in these details, the small objects Jonze provides us with in his film of disembodied desires, that essences become distilled. The safety pin in the shirt pocket, the electronic beauty mark, the small device to check images, (more flat mahogany picture frame with a mini-bullseye than cell phone) are tasteful and inanimate. Even Rumpelstiltskin wanted something living.

Who makes this world function? This is not Fritz Lang's Metropolis. We only see what glitters. Once we spot a cleaning woman scrubbing the floor in the distance. LA residents take the subway to the beach. Theodore takes a high speed train to spend a romantic weekend with Samantha in a snowy cottage. They have fun. Who needs people? Maybe this isn't the right question, or could it be the exact right one? How exclusive does the number 641 sound to you?

During a double date picnic, three humans and one OS discuss mortality and suddenly Nabokov's novel from 1962 gets new relevance:

"What moment in that gradual decay Does resurrection choose? What year? What day? Who has the stopwatch? Who rewinds the tape? Are some less lucky, or do all escape? A syllogism: other men die; but I Am not another: therefore I'll not die."

What happens when she can't live in Theodore's book any more?

To Her, wherever she may roam!

Reviewed on: 06 Dec 2013
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A lonely writer falls in love with his new all-purpose operating system, leading to romantic and existential complications.
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Director: Spike Jonze

Writer: Spike Jonze

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Chris Pratt, Olivia Wilde, Rooney Mara, Bill Hader, Matt Letscher, voices of Scarlett Johansson, Kristen Wiig, Spike Jonze, Brian Cox

Year: 2013

Runtime: 125 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


New York 2013

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