When it comes to full length directorial efforts, Spike Jonze can do no wrong. With only three previous films under his belt over a career that has spanned over two decades, it might be easy for one to assume that he doesn’t have “it,” that elusive spirit and wherewithal to really go for it and do something different.
But then you think back to those three movies, the meta films “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation” and the wonderfully imaginative, inventive and heartfelt “Where the Wild Things Are.” Like that 2009 marvel, his latest, the futuristic sci-fi romance, “Her,” is another film of unrivaled excellence, one that taps into ideas and themes in the way only the mind of Mr. Jonze can. It is hands down the best American movie of 2013.
“Her” follows Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), an increasingly lonely man whose wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), has left him. Still clinging onto a relationship that has clearly ended, he refuses to sign their divorce papers. One day, in a desperate attempt to alleviate his loneliness, he decides to purchase an operating system that he can install and speak to, whom he calls Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). As the two speak, he begins to fall in love with her, despite the fact that she’s nothing more than a computerized voice. She begins to reciprocate those feelings and finds in her a desire to be alive, which is obviously something she’ll never be able to obtain.
That’s a sad thought, to want something so bad, but know that it will never happen. But it’s a beautiful sadness, one that is contemplative and poignant, especially because being alive is all Theo wants too. “Her” understands that being alive isn’t simply in existing, but in the interactions with other people in our lives and the love that grows from those relationships. If we don’t have someone to care about or that cares for us, are we really alive?
In a broader sense, the movie explores this idea through Theo’s occupation as a letter writer, someone who manufactures sentiments for those who can’t take the time to do it themselves. In this future, it’s as if people can’t even feel for themselves and need others to feel for them and in our fast moving, technical world, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility for something like this to happen. In a sense, it already has. For example, how often do people actually call their loved ones these days? Most send texts.
Our conversations have not only devolved into online communication. They’re also being limited to 140 characters thanks to the likes of Twitter, one of the most popular social media sites around. “Her” imagines a world where human interaction has reached a near non-existent point, where even when it does happen, it’s mainly small talk. One early shot when Theo is riding the subway, everyone within the frame is talking, but not to each other. They’re all talking to their devices plugged into their ears. It’s a striking and haunting image.
But within all this thematic exploration is a human story about love and its messy existence. Even this so-called “perfect love,” the one that is programmed to say and be everything Theo could ever want and need, proves to be fleeting. What happens is something of profound sadness, though it nevertheless ends on a hopeful note, Theo having finally recaptured his humanity, even if it took a program to help him do it.
Rounding out a nearly flawless movie is the wonderful (occasionally diegetic) score. One of the most marvelous scenes in the film comes when Theo is standing on the beach talking to Sam through his earpiece. She asks him what it’s like to actually be there, breathing in the fresh air and feeling the sand beneath his toes, so he plays a piece of music for her in an attempt to capture it. Although great on its own serving as support for the events portrayed onscreen, scenes like this give the score so much more meaning to a movie already chock full of ideas and ruminations.
“Her” is the perfect follow-up to “Where the Wild Things Are,” another movie that expressed the kind of sadness and loneliness that a person can feel at a certain point in their life. Of course, that movie had its detractors, so I imagine this one will as well, but those people will be missing the entire point of it: to remind us that to love and to be loved is to be alive. Through the heartbreaks and the crippling sadness that love sometimes brings, it remains the sole reason to be alive in the first place. Sappy though it sounds, “Her” approaches it in a way that can only be described as divine. Nobody should miss this movie.