Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!
Spike Jonze’s Her has one of the most inventive concepts of any film I’ve seen in a long time, a story set in the near future about a man who falls in love with his operating system. Of course in the hands of another director this film might have been too goofy, or too cloying, or worst of all, a total bore. There were possibilities of missteps along the way.
Thankfully, Spike Jonze is at the helm, and he is one of those talents who always takes risks and commits one hundred percent to the story he is telling, even if it involves John Malkovich’s brain or Charlie Kaufman’s peculiar writing process. While Her’s running time ultimately stretches about twenty minutes too long, this is a fascinating love story for the twenty-first century well deserving of its five Academy Award nominations.
Joaquin Phoenix, who continues to be stellar in movie after movie, plays Theodore Twombly, a greetings card writer dealing with the imminent divorce of his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara). He buys the first of its kind — an OS1, which includes the world’s first artificial intelligent operating system. He boots it up, picks a female voice, and starts chatting with a woman who sounds and feels like she is right there in the room. The sultry voice (Scarlett Johannsen) names herself Samantha, and Theodore immediately starts bonding with her. Soon enough, she’s his girlfriend. Weirder than that, no one around him, including his friend Amy (Amy Adams), seems to think this is anything to worry about.
What struck me the most about Her was its cold, depressing view of the near future. There are endless shots of Theodore walking to and from work, talking into his ear piece, as dozens of people around him stare at the ground and talk into their ear pieces, too. Nobody looks at each other. Human interaction has been cut to a minimum, and no one seems to mind. This vision is striking because it looks to be where we are headed. Scariest of all, as I watched the film, I started to feel like the main idea, of people falling in love with their operating system voices, actually wasn’t that far-fetched.
Her can be looked at in two ways. On one level, it’s a sweet love story, of Theodore finding himself, as he tries for a connection with someone else, even if it’s not an actual person. The interactions between Theodore and Samantha are often funny and lively, and rarely awkward. But on another level, Her is almost like Gravity and All is Lost, in that it’s essentially a person by himself most of the movie, talking to somebody who isn’t really there. As artificially intelligent as Samantha is, she doesn’t really exist. So every time I wanted to root for Theodore, not just to be with Samantha, but to be happy, the little voice in the back of my head kept distracting me by saying, he can’t ever be happy with her. This second level makes the film emotionally frustrating at times.
The performances enhance the reality of this environment. Phoenix is perfectly cast and appropriately dopey here, in a role just as sharply drawn as his Freddie in The Master. Her is a great film for actresses. Rooney Mara and Olivia Wilde do great work with tiny roles, and Amy Adams is delightfully frumpy here in a performance much warmer and better realized than her turn in the overrated American Hustle. Scarlett Johansson has one of the great sultry screen voices and was a perfect choice for Samantha. More impressive is her range of emotion that makes the character, by the film’s second half, feel in every way like a real person.
While Her doesn’t reach the levels of artistry of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, few films can, and this is a step in the right direction for Jonze, after his visually stunning but dramatically stilted Where the Wild Things Are. The look of the film is incredible, the score by Arcade Fire is one of the year’s best, and the performances are uniformly excellent. This one will certainly make you think about the scary places we may be headed. Here’s hoping the reality in Her is decades away, and not years.
Watching Like a Writer
Her makes me think of writing a futuristic story that is as realistic and prophetic as possible. I’d love to write an intimate short story between two people that has to do with the monotony of everyday life that just happens to be set, say, thirty years in the future. Her represents that kind of story so well, giving the viewer both the beauty and the sadness of where we’re headed.
Think of a story-line for a piece of fiction about the future. What would your story be about? Who would be your main character?