Movie Review: “Her” (Spike Jonze, USA 2013)

Spike Jonze has built a career on making films with odd basic concepts. Sometimes, like Adaptation. (USA 2002), he’s able to make the film work within its own weirdness, finding a good thread to follow throughout and having just enough of a visual imagination to keep things interesting. Other times, like Being John Malkovich (USA 1999), he has trusted the weirdness of the concept to carry an otherwise completely uninteresting film. In either case, the unusualness of the plot has typically been enough to receive attention and praise aplenty, meaning that even the very strong reviews for Her left me wondering what to expect from the film. Would it be another interesting-if-uneven work or perhaps even better or would it be another pointless exercise in weirdness?

Unfortunately, I think the film is closer to the latter than the former, and the praise it is receiving is almost entirely about its basic plot and Joaquin Phoenix’s strong (if one-dimensional) lead performance.

The film tells the story of a lonely divorced writer, Theodore Twombly, developing a romantic relationship with the operating system he has just installed on his home computer. Twombly’s relationship with the OS ebbs and flows just like a human-to-human relationship and he struggles with and eventually accepts both the idea of having such a relationship and the idea of revealing such a relationship to the world. The problem is that the film doesn’t really have a point. Instead, it’s attempting to explore the nature of love, a concept that is far too large and complex for a film, and that the film seems to be attempting to explore in the most shallow way possible. It’s only interested in exploring whether it is possible for a human to have a relationship with an operating system that is a “real” romantic relationship, not in examining any of the more specific issues that would need to be explored in order to make that determination. As a result, the film really ends up as rather a pointless mess that is only concerned with advancing its silly plot and not with making any deeper point.

That said, the film does what it sets up to do reasonably well. The relationship between Theodore and Samantha is complex, realistic, and nuanced. The characters are well-drawn, especially Theodore himself. As an emotionally drained loser, Theodore makes his living as a writer of personal letters for other people who apparently cannot be bothered to write their own letters. It’s a perfect and quick explanation of who he is and the world that this film inhabits: one where people fake their own relationships, making a loving relationship with a “fake person” is understandable. Even minor characters like Theodore’s blind date whom his friends send him to meet and his boss are interesting, rounded characters, an achievement that few films could boast in only two hours.

It also boasts some clever jokes, like the phone sex partner who wants Theodore to choke her with the dead cat by the bed (and more importantly his strained reaction to her request). However, it is also perfectly willing to be so broad in its humor that it loses me, as with the virtual reality character who swears at Theodore and flips him off and apparently it is hilarious because it’s a cute little cartoon doing that.

Unfortunately, Jonze and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema display little visual imagination. It’s a standard cyan-orange color scheme without any particularly interesting shadows or lights happening anywhere. The film uses cooler colors for more emotionally detached scenes and warmer colors for more tender scenes, which is decent enough technique but nothing special. There is nothing awful about the visual aspect of the film, but it’s not actually interesting either, which limits how good of a film it can really be.

The acting is excellent across the board, but it’s also excellent in part because the deeper characters don’t get much screen time while those who get more screen time are much more shallow, as best exemplified by Theodore. Theodore is, quite simply, a sad sack. There just isn’t much for Joaquin Phoenix to do with the part, though he deserves credit for how well he plays this downtrodden person. His part is essentially a watered-down version of William H. Macy’s part from The Cooler (Wayne Kramer, USA 2003), and he does everything he needs to do. It’s just that what he needs to do is not as complex or interesting as one would like from a truly great performance.

It should also be noted that Owen Pallett’s score was a rather annoying, obtrusive presence throughout the film. Some moments, like the cascading obviousness of Samantha’s piano lines in her songs, work well for the film, but those are unfortunately the exception rather than the rule.

All told, Her is an average film. It has an interesting concept, some nicely written characters, and great acting, but that’s where its strengths end. It’s okay for a single watch, but nothing more than that.

Notes

  • I do wonder a bit when this film is supposed to be set. The technology of OS1 is clearly well beyond the capabilities of humanity today–Samantha would easily pass the Turing test. High technology also seems to be ubiquitous, even more so than it is today, and there seems to be no shortage of nonstop, perfect internet connections and wireless transmitters of various types. But there aren’t flying cars or self-fitting clothing or anything, so is it supposed to be the near future? Or is Jonze just taking some major poetic license with the limits of current technology? (Or are we not supposed to think about that?)
  • Why didn’t Scarlett Johansson play the sex surrogate? That would have been hilarious.
  • Chris Pratt has always been a big guy but holy crap his arms were huge. They were bigger around than Joaquin Phoenix’s head. He must have already been training for his superhero movie.
  • Making Amy Adams a blonde is a crime. Spike Jonze is now in my prison.
  • I’m terrified to look it up, but places like where Theodore works don’t exist, do they? They probably do . . .
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5 thoughts on “Movie Review: “Her” (Spike Jonze, USA 2013)

  1. Just saw this movie and I really liked it, so I disagree with you!

    Random thoughts:

    1) I had the same thought about how SJ should play the surrogate. For uh, multiple reasons.

    2) Cute little things cursing is funny, what is wrong with you?!

    3) I don’t love Amy Adams, but I thought she did a really good job in this movie. Very well-acted.

    4) I can’t believe this guy was Commodus.

    5) Olivia Wilde was great in her limited role. Ditto Mara (I know you enjoyed the acting, but I’m just echoing).

    Putting aside whether it was a good movie by movie reviewer standards (e.g., I don’t care about the visual styling of the movie), I thought it was entertaining and thought-provoking. It also had a bit of a Woody Allen/Vicky Cristina Barcelona feel to it for me.

    Putting on my critic’s hat…. sure, you can’t tackle the subject of love in 2 hours. But as you say, the characters were pretty deep and the emotions were complex and real. I also think Theodore was a bit deeper than you give him credit. He seems to have trouble connecting emotionally even though on the surface he’s a very emotional guy. But I thought the scene where Mara signed the divorce papers at lunch was a very revealing and critical scene in the movie. She’s not surprised that he’s dating an OS, because he can’t seem to actually connect with people he dates. And in his post-divorce world, he’s sitting around playing video games as an escape.

    My 0.02.

    • What is wrong with me, especially as it relates to comedy (I have been told before that if it’s not Douglas Adams, Tim Minchin, or Woody Allen, I hate all comedy, and I had a more difficult time than I should disproving that.), would take far longer to list than I care to spend right now, especially since I’m going to go watch “Orphan Black” as soon as I finish this comment. ;)

      I think Amy Adams is sort of strange–she’s a fine actor and very pretty, but she also seems to be in about 70% of the movies released, to the point that I get sort of tired of seeing her. I don’t know if I’m the only one.

      I hate to say it, but Olivia Wilde was good. She generally annoys me and I HATED her character on “House” so much that it sticks to her a bit, but she was good for what little she had to do here.

      The problem with “Her” is just that it’s too surface-level. It brings up issues with the relationship, but it just sort of puts them in front of us and says, “This would be something that could be an issue with a human-OS relationship” without really examining them. It also doesn’t really make sense to me to make a film that’s actually about such relationships without making it somehow applicable to more typical situations, but it’s so busy with its plot that it doesn’t say anything that’s really more generalizable.

      It’s even possible to make a film that’s generally about the nature of love that works, but the way to do it is to have a specific, identifiable viewpoint (example: “Well, I guess that’s pretty much now how I feel about relationships: they’re totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd, but I guess we keep goin’ through it because most of us need the eggs.”), and “Her” didn’t even really seem to have a viewpoint, let alone a very particular one.

      Even then, I think it mostly did what it wanted to do well, as far as writing and acting are concerned. It just would have done them just as well if you listened to it with your eyes closed, which is bad for a film.

      Still, I welcome the comment even when we disagree, Chase! And in a few hours we will probably be agreeing that Tatiana Maslany is amazing.

      • Good points. I enjoy your reviews, and I’m always excited when you have reviewed a movie I just saw. I will note that I did a few chores while watching the movie knowing that well, in scenes when Joaquin was talking to Samantha, I really didn’t need to be watching — listening was enough. (Maybe next time it should be ScarJo falling in love with an OS, because then at least our eyes would be glued to the screen).

        One point you’ve opened my eyes too is how difficult it is to really deliver a theme in movies due to time. You’re right that you can’t get too deep on any topic: I hadn’t given it much thought before, but I feel like I learn something from your reviews.

        Also, it really wasn’t shtick my tweet about Expendables: I will watch anything with Stallone or Schwartznegger.

        • I unsurprisingly suggest Karen Gillan to make sure I pay attention . . .

          Well, I am glad to hear you learn something, and that point (the time restrictions limiting how much a movie can say) is one that really made films more interesting to me, but it’s also one with which most people argue.

          To me, it was fascinating reading Sidney Lumet’s “Making Movies” (a fantastic book) and his description of how he changed “Dog Day Afternoon” from what the studio had expected by saying that the entire point of the film was going to be that “freaks aren’t the freaks we think they are.” It informed every element of the film–he threw out most of the script even though he thought it was great in favor of improvisation because he wanted the dialogue to sound more natural, he rehearsed relentlessly to ensure that every actor was so deep into his/her character that they would all seem human, he didn’t add any music after the opening credits in order to make the atmosphere more “real,” and he tried to shoot in long, interrupted takes to keep from drawing attention to the camera and keep it focused on the characters. To me, seeing how every element of that film was so meticulously constructed to further its point just made everything far more interesting. I had known I loved watching the film, but now I knew that it really was a great film and I knew why.

          And, um, “Expendables III” is not going to be as good as “Citizen Kane.” You may be interested to know that “Citizen Kane” actually lost out its long-held top spot on the last Sight & Sound poll, but the film that beat it out shockingly did not include either Schwarzenegger or Stallone: http://explore.bfi.org.uk/sightandsoundpolls/2012. For what it’s worth, I think they do a much better job than they’re credited with doing at what they do–their sights are low and they just make genre pictures, but they do it a hell of a lot better than, say, Steven Seagal or Chuck Norris.

          (The Sight & Sound critics poll is the most respected list of the greatest films there is. They also do a directors poll that’s fascinating even if it’s nowhere near as authoritative, and they actually list everyone’s ballot on the website, so you can even look up things like Woody Allen’s rather unsurprising but great ballot: http://explore.bfi.org.uk/sightandsoundpolls/2012/voter/1200.)

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