Spike Jonze is operating on an entirely new level of brain-teasing awesome with “Her,” his first film where he has sole writing credit. With “Being John Malkovick” and “Adaptation.,” he was wrangling in the surreal notions of identity being explored by Charlie Kaufman, while in “Where the Wild Things Are,” he dug deep into the emotional restlessness of youth in expanding Maurice Sendak’s great classic. Here, the ideas are his own, and wow, he hasn’t missed a beat.
What must it have been like for Jonze as he watched Warner Bros. try and put together a trailer for his film. The premise is quite outrageous: in the not-so-distant future, Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly is coming out of a failed marriage, and is alone in life. One day, he purchases an advanced operating system that promises an AI programming beyond anything anyone’s seen before, and can be installed on every device you own. Theodore buys it, and after a few questions, meets Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), and there’s an instant connection between the two. Samantha is funny, warm, curious, and the type of person Theodore needs in his life during the time of transition. But what happens next is something he never could have predicted…he falls in love with Samantha. How do you boil that down to a 2 1/2 minute trailer?
Warner Bros. succeeded in that respect, but there a lot of emotional land mines one has to watch the film itself to see. Yes, the premise is silly (and was even played out comically on an episode of “Big Bang Theory” where Raj fell for Siri), but Jonze’s heartfelt screenplay, though filled with genuine humor, plays things out sincerely, and profoundly. A key to the film’s success is how Theodore is shown as a romantic at heart who just ended up with the wrong woman in his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara). Theodore works at a place called Beautiful Handwritten Letters, and it’s obvious watching him at work that he has a gift for getting to the truth of situations, and understanding individuals, even if he just knows them through photographs he’s sent. He’s got a vein of creativity that his job lets him tap in to, although he’s a little too introverted himself to express how he feels so eloquently. When he’s talking with Samantha, however, he seems to become the best version of himself. He’s fearless, funny, sweet, and caring, but when things begin to get serious, all of the old anxieties left over from his marriage come back, and as Samantha begins to evolve, there’s an uncertainty that comes with her maturation that could derail everything.
Scarlett Johansson doesn’t just deserve an Oscar nomination for her voice-only performance as Samantha– she deserves to take home the trophy. This is the best, most well-rounded performance she’s given since “Ghost World,” and it’s entirely from the nuanced work she does in turning Samantha into a full-bodied character. There’s a scene mid-way through where Samantha and Theodore are “making love,” and even though there’s no physical action, Johansson sells it in a way that goes beyond acting, and comes from a place of real truth. The same can be said about the worry in her voice as things start to fall apart between Samantha and Theodore. Yes, she’s famous more for her beauty, but it’s hard to think of another performance in which she’s come more alive “on-screen.”
I could almost write the same thing about Phoenix, who surpasses his furious performance last year in “The Master” with a more layered, fragile turn here. He seems so tightly wound and intense most of the time that it’s easy to forget the pain that always seems to be just underneath when it comes to Phoenix. His performance as Theodore brought to mind his adrift, sullen pre-teen in “Parenthood,” and the isolated adult in “Two Lovers,” and tops both of them. It’d be easy for him to just play this as a quirky romantic lead, but like Johansson, he finds something deeper beneath the surface. Even though they’d don’t share a scene together on-screen, and Johansson only came onto the film in April of last year (replacing Samantha Morton), they sell what is, to say the least, one of the most unconventional love stories in modern movie history, and make me care what happens between these two. Few other actors could accomplish that; Phoenix and Johansson make it look, and sound, easy.
Really, though, Jonze is the MVP of “Her,” and rightfully so. An Oscar nominee for “Being John Malkovich,” as well as an acclaimed music video and commercial director (and one of the driving forces behind “Jackass,” even), he’s only made four features, but each one is meticulously crafted and loaded with comedic invention and absurdity. Underlying, though, is a solid emotional foundation in which the main characters each are searching for a sense of identity that’s missing in their lives. They know what they’re dreams are, but don’t necessarily see that reflected in their reality. The same is very true with “Her,” and not just Theodore and Samantha– also adrift in life are Amy (played by the lovely Amy Adams), Theodore’s long-time friend; Catherine (played by Mara as a live-wire, but loving, individual); and the woman Theodore goes on a blind date with, played by the fragile, and drop-dead gorgeous, Olivia Wilde. It’s important to also mention those three women because they each play a key role in Theodore’s life as he settles in to a life with Samantha, even if they’re only in a scene or two. Like the soothing, evocative score by Arcade Fire, as well as a haunting song by Jonze favorite, Karen O, the women of “Her” aren’t just there for decoration; they’re there as a way of helping us dig deep into Theodore’s psyche, and bringing Jonze’s wild, warm ideas of love to the surface. It’s a glorious accomplishment, and an ode to love unlike anything else I’ve ever seen.