Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson & Amy Adams
One of the many nonsensical mantras I like to roll out for these things is that subject matter is actually irrelevant to quality. I believe this because I’ve seen a cash-in movie based on brightly-coloured Danish bricks become one of the most well-executed Blockbusters in recent memory and numerous biopics of some of the most important people in history become insufferable bores despite their lofty material. When I first heard of the concept for Spike Jonze’s Her, I broke my own rules as my response was to raise the left side of my face in cynical contempt. It sounded like the worst of bad student films, the kind where it’s embarrassing to even be in the room, and while I knew how good Jonze is and that the film would probably end up something in the realms of good, I felt it would be a disappointing movie for someone at the peak of his powers to be making.
The good news is as always predicting the future is eternally a sucker’s game. The concept of Her, a man (Phoenix) falling in love with the artificial intelligent operating system named Samantha (Johansson) inside his computer, is actually a brilliant one. Jonze looks beyond the initial gross veneer and makes Her an intelligent, insightful idiom on love in the modern world, and perhaps more than that the notion of maturity, and what that can really mean. Samantha’s journey of self-discovery is particularly affecting, as rather than it just being a learning curve of the potential of feeling, seeing and being alive as a human, there’s an exploration of what it would mean to be alive as an AI, of what maturity would entail under those parameters. Johansson is fantastic in the role and just like with James Gandolfini in Where The Wild Things Are, it’s a shame there’s no real way to reward remarkable voice-over performances such as these.
For a film made up of characters, human and virtual, putting their emotions into dialogue fairly literally, it manages to avoid feeling insipid or overblown, largely thanks to the unrelenting sincerity and honesty of Jonze’s script. It’s explicit with its emotions but never trite with them, each soul-baring word carefully and intelligently constructed. The execution is everything, and there was more than one moment where I thought in different hands the film would have collapsed in on itself. But with Jonze everything is so deliberate it manages to be unabashedly emotionally vulnerable without ever straying into melodrama.
Phoenix excels in the lead, as you’d expect him to. Anyone with ambitions of being an actor should watch his performances in The Master and this together to see two truly brilliant performances at the complete opposite of the human spectrum. He’s one of the best around, and after a few years of nonsense it’s good to see him back to proving it on the regular.
If I did have a complaint I’d say that the film’s optimistic take on the world does occasionally force it to whitewash over some of the darker ramifications of its premise, a feeling slightly compounded by the saintly nature of Phoenix’s character, and perhaps there’s an alternate version of this story featuring a darker and less noble lead. But I don’t want to be the critic who always says darker is better, Her’s perspective on the world goes against the grain in its positivity and just because it’s sweet it doesn’t make it saccharine. It has a unique voice, it’s much funnier than you would expect and it’s a very adult take on what maturity truly is, a subject that perhaps doesn’t get the airtime it might in fiction.
While I don’t think it’s quite as powerful or purely affecting as Where The Wild Things Are (which I think is one of the finest films of the last five years), Her is nonetheless a fantastic film and more evidence that Spike Jonze don’t need no Charlie Kaufman to be a great film-maker. I always thought Kaufman took an unfair percentage of the credit for their work together, and since their separation I’m more partial to Jonze’s work than Kaufman’s. There’s directness to Jonze’s recent work, an emotional honesty that doesn’t seek to tie itself in knots that is very exciting, because along with it he is maintaining the originality and quality of his films with Kaufman. He’s one of the industry’s best and you get the sense he’s just getting started.