In Spike Jonze’s new film Her, which he wrote and directed, Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a depressed professional letter writer living in the not so distant future. In the midst of a breakup with his wife, Theodore’s life is in flux. His apartment features lots of space and empty shelves; he kills time playing videogames featuring foul-mouthed characters who berate him; and he mopes about in a state of apathy, simply going through the motions of life. Then he updates his computer to a new operating system named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) and they fall in love.
Much has been made of this uncanny romance between a man and his computer system, but while Jonze’s plot is ripe for opening up a discussion about the limits of human beings vs. the limits of technology, or about the dilemma we now face as a society overly dependent upon technology, it would be a real stretch to say that’s what Her is ultimately about. In Jonze’s hands, this is a story about what it means–and what it has always meant–to be human.
The near-future world in which Her takes place is very much like today, and there isn’t any scathing critique of our tech-obsessed culture. It is merely the setting. In fact, when Theodore makes a great reveal about his relationship with Samantha to his friend and neighbor Amy (Amy Adams), she barely bats an eye, having developed her own deep friendship with her OS since leaving her husband. It’s as though dating and falling in love with your computer’s operating system is only a slight deviation from the norm, neither perverse nor even eccentric. Theodore and Samantha even go on double dates with Theodore’s boss (Chris Pratt) and his live girlfriend. The more provocative issue is about how human beings continue to struggle with expressing ourselves to each other. We can and often do share intimate details with the great void of the Internet via so-called “social networking” sites, but how do we communicate offline? We’re still stuck in the same human-to-human dynamic that Jonze has always shown as awkward and difficult.
This point is made marvelously clear in Theodore’s profession as a personal letter writer, writing beautiful love letters, congratulatory notes, and familial communiques for the less creative masses who no longer even know how to write a letter to their wives, grandmothers, or children. Like in Jonze’s 2002 film Adaptation, our hero is a writer, sensitive and capable of revealing emotions through the written word. But where Adaptation, which was written by Charlie Kaufman, has a distinctly misanthropic undertone (as does their other collaboration, Being John Malkovich), Jonze’s own scripts are more hopeful, with leads who are outsiders, not totally comfortable with who they are, but also considerate to a fault–people who just mean well. Theodore is doing the best that he can, as is Samantha, who, in her own computerized way, is just learning how to be more human.
What makes Jonze so unique and singular as a writer/director is his attention to the ways in which human beings communicate. It’s easy to get carried away with the quirkiness factor and discuss Her as unique for the human/computer love affair at the center of the plot, but to do so is to miss the overriding themes of this, and I’d argue all of Jonze’s feature films so far: the ways in which love causes us excruciating joy and devastating pain in equal measure; and the awkward process of growing (up) as human beings, emotionally, physically, and intellectually.
Other Jonzian touches evident here are in the way he gives us characters who, as offbeat as they are, appear almost mundane against the even greater absurdity of the people and society surrounding them. For example, in Her, Theodore calls a service that connects people for an intimate phone-sex encounter. As their dirty talk progresses, the woman on the other end reveals a fetish involving dead cats, making Theodore seem incredibly normal by contrast.
I am a great admirer of Jonze as a director, and everything about Her maintains those feelings, but I am even more impressed with him as a writer with each film he writes. Although widely misunderstood as a badly made children’s film, his previous film Where the Wild Things Are was perhaps the best written film about the experience of childhood, written for adults. This is why Maurice Sendak fully endorsed the film even as it took major liberties with his sparsely written original children’s story. Her is a continuation of this type of work for Jonze, exploring the vulnerabilities of the human experience in a fresh, compassionate way.
Oscar Thoughts: This is my pick for Best Original Screenplay.