Anyone who’s ever tried to meet someone online, especially if that someone doesn’t live close to you, recognizes the feeling. It’s as if the conversations and flirting isn’t entirely real; you’re talking with someone, getting to know one another, but it’s still just words exchanged, words that may be laden with romance… but you never really know. It’s when you finally meet in person that your feelings are either confirmed or bitterly refuted. This is a film about what happens when those romantic conversations can’t be confirmed by a physical presence.
In the near future, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) works as a copywriter at BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, a company that specializes in writing letters for people that don’t know how to express themselves. Shortly after divorcing Catherine (Rooney Mara), Theodore buys a new operating system with artificial intelligence and chooses a female voice for it. After the installation, the OS introduces itself to Theodore and picks a name, Samantha. They immediately hit it off and Samantha quickly goes from being a helper in Theodore’s life to a companion. Emotions between them grow stronger, which is happening to other users as well worldwide…
Inspired by Kaufman
Apparently, Spike Jonze got the idea from reading about Cleverbot, an app that you can talk to online; that’s what shaped the technological backbone of the story. As for the emotional fabric, he was inspired by his frequent collaborator Charlie Kaufman who, when making Synecdoche, New York (2008), tried to put everything that came to his mind at a given moment, ideas and feelings, into the script. That really didn’t work for Kaufman’s movie, but it does help make the relationship between Theodore and Samantha credible and down to earth in this film, recognizable to anyone who has ever loved.
Jonze has a sense of humor about it as well, because a deadly earnest approach to a story about the love affair between a man and his operating system would kill the movie. Jonze takes the story as far as you can expect and leads us to conclusions that make sense. One of the depressing things about it is that it feels so close to our own times; we are obsessed by our smartphones, tablets and social media that the allure of isolation might grow stronger the better the software gets. Scarlett Johansson, who provides the voice of Samantha, is so attractive that we understand why Theodore would reject real women over her.
Phoenix delivers a touching performance; watching him act against primarily a voice is interesting because he’s really sharing that situation with his character. Amy Adams, Mara and Olivia Wilde offer varying, complex and valuable contributions as women who all view Theodore differently.
A final word on the design. The filmmakers’ vision of the future is interesting as the modern clashes with nostalgia in an utterly probable way. A lot of films set in the future forget that we always look back to the past as well. This is one of few movies to get that trends in fashion always come back in cycles. That helps us believe in its vision to a greater degree.
her 2013-U.S. 127 min. Color. Produced by Megan Ellison, Spike Jonze, Vincent Landay. Written and directed by Spike Jonze. Cinematography: Hoyte Van Hoytema. Music: Will Butler, Owen Pallett. Song: “The Moon Song” (Karen O, Spike Jonze). Cast: Joaquin Phoenix (Theodore Twombly), Amy Adams (Amy), Rooney Mara (Catherine), Olivia Wilde, Chris Pratt. Voices of Scarlett Johansson (Samantha), Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Spike Jonze, Brian Cox.
Trivia: Samantha Morton was first cast as Samantha; Carey Mulligan was allegedly considered for another part.
Oscar: Best Original Screenplay. Golden Globe: Best Screenplay.
Last word: “The timbre of her voice is beautiful. It’s the person inside the voice, it’s her intelligence, and it’s her wit. She’s the kind of person that can tease you and get right to your core but also it’s affectionate. You want to get teased by her. How do you define charisma, true charisma? She’s obviously beautiful, but you take that away and she’s just as captivating. She’s got that thing and combined with the emotional depth of where she’s willing to go – she really went there in this incredible way.” (Jonze on Johansson, The Playlist)