It just so happens that Her is the last of 2013’s multi-Oscar nominated films to be released in the UK – as well as the best. It’s an offbeat, funny and astonishingly warm movie that manages to feel more universal than Academy titans Gravity, 12 Years a Slave and the Wolf of Wall Street while having a stronger sense of humanity than Nebraska, Inside Llewyn Davis or Dallas Buyers Club. Strange as it may seem, this weird movie quite possibly says more about your life than all the other Best Picture contenders combined.
Theodore Twombly (Joaquim Phoenix) is a lonely man, pending divorce from his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) and living only to work his job as a specialist greetings card writer. With nothing to lose, he obliges an advert for what is ostensibly a futuristic edition of Siri. The operating system, named Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), soon becomes a friend of Theo and together they form a strong relationship as her sentience improves. But far from being an example of the usual AI technophobia, Her deals first and foremost with separation, specifically that aimless feeling after ending a long-term relationship and the false-highs you can feel when someone picks you up. Aside from the bitter Catherine, the film’s primary antagonist is infatuation, which as we all know can strike at all the wrong moments.
Furthermore, it weighs in on the complications arising with rebounds, which is essentially all Samantha is. Even in his happiest moments with his OS, Theodore never manages to let go of Catherine; this leads to awkwardness between him and Sam, down periods for them both and declining satisfaction. But as time goes on, Samantha’s faults are less and less likely to be excused by Theo who can’t see his own hypocrisy for the walls he’s building around himself. These impressively realistic flourishes of characterisation make Her a stunning reflection of modern romance’s default shortcomings, a truly contemporary ‘Romeo & Juliet’ and a brutally honest piece of work.
This is all before stating the film’s most overt success; it’s a crystal clear emblem of 2010s society. In our current climate, the internet is the gravitational centre of the western world, and stories like Before Sunrise have been replaced by “_______ has sent you a friend request.” Her is clearly set in the future, but this is only evident through its vibrant, sanitised settings; if it took place in 2013, its premise wouldn’t even seem that unrealistic. But its excellent illustration of our social media-dominated planet is really just the basis of its genius. A concept such as this is usually reserved for the more forgettable novelties that squander a cool idea on lax production and basic direction, with cheap laughs, cheesy screenwriting and disinterest pouring out of every nook and cranny – basically, Her could have ended up adrift in the murky waters between ‘forgettable’ and ‘shite’. With a director like Jonze, however, the film flourishes in fantastic little details, each one a stepping stone to greatness.
Another huge revelation is Johansson. As an actress who uses body language heavily in her performances, the reduction to just her voice would be an apparent handicap. But facing the task head-on, she demonstrates herself as a natural presence in all methods of communication which goes way beyond star power. By merely speaking, she can dominate an entire scene and she interacts ridiculously well with Phoenix, who is equally commendable in his position. Johansson’s physical absence does in no way prevent her from being the most powerful performer in the room.
It’s assumed that you can tell a Jonze film a mile off, but his two most acclaimed works (which amount to half of his filmography) are heavily indebted to collaborating screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, whose stamp on Jonze’s earlier films became evident as he carried it over to other directors. With Jonze on writing duties for the first time with Her, he properly establishes a style that escapes the exhausting insanity of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation and goes for a tone that is softer, warmer and endlessly watchable – but still fascinatingly textured and unique. What’s really surprising is that Her is essentially this decade’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a Kaufman-scripted film that was also one of the ’00s best, so maybe they weren’t so co-dependent after all.
This movie represents a milestone in contemporary western culture, despite taking place in the near(?) future, but all in all it’s a cinematic triumph of any standard, beautifully directed, fantastically acted and mesmeric in its construction.