With its clever less-than-sci-fi setting and the beginnings of an intriguing plot, watching Spike Jonze’s Her descend into sensitive, twee-guy, cathartic wish fulfillment feels like going to an awesome house party and spending the whole night being cornered by the guy who brought his acoustic guitar; it wouldn’t be so bad on its own, if only it weren’t such a constant obstacle between you and a worthwhile experience.
Her tells the story of Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a professional writer of other people’s love letters who is having difficulty coping with his divorce that is one signature away from being final. Theodore lives in the nonspecific future in which smartphones have evolved into hands-free life organizers; though this may seem convenient and freeing, all it does is enable Theodore and others like him is to avoid the outside world that much more effectively. One day, Theodore buys an artificial intelligence (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) for this device, complete with thoughts, personality, and the ability to evolve emotionally. The two begin to develop feelings for one another, the tension in which is caused by the fact that Theodore is leaving a life-defining marriage while Samantha (as the AI names itself) is entering the relationship of her life.
Unfortunately, all of Her’s inventive plot elements are completely frontloaded in the first half hour. The remainder of the film would like very much to be about the unique relationship between Samantha and Theodore, but the minutiae of their romance is portrayed so matter-of-factly that it would be virtually the same movie if the sci-fi were dropped altogether and we just watched two real people with bodies talking to a relationship counselor for two hours.
To Jonze’s credit, he never writes Samantha into the box of the much-maligned Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a quirky archetype whose entire existence in films is defined by her lack of any life goals outside of helping the withdrawn protagonist break out of his shell (see: Garden State). Samantha does have ambitions that don’t involve Theodore, and often pursues them despite his objections or insecurities. But that distinction gets lost more than a few times throughout the story, causing her to fit the MPDG function if not the form; though the film is titled Her, it’s told entirely from his perspective. He’s a sensitive, nice guy who needs help getting out of his own way, and she’s just a sexy voice in his head. With all of the creativity that went into her conception, Samantha is reduced to a regular girlfriend who just happens to not have a body. It’s a disservice to the character, to the premise, and to the audience.
Eventually, and most tellingly, the relationship narrative is pushed aside to become the story of how an emotionally bruised writer tries not to lose the best thing that ever happened to him. Even if you go into Her without knowing the details of Jonze’s own life, the fact that this film was written by a divorced man to work through his own problems should be painfully obvious by this point in the story. Anyone who wrote emo poetry and short fiction in their teenage years ought to recognize that Theodore was never conceived of as a man, but as a projection of a writer’s flaws and mistakes, and Samantha is the too-perfect solution to them.
Her is sporadically funny, terrifically acted, looks great, and its vision of the near future is close enough to home to be believable. But rather than using science fiction to tell a personal story, Her suffocates its premise under its characters’ emotional baggage.
HER | RATED R | IN THEATERS NOW