With Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde. Written by and directed by Spike Jonze. Rated R for language, sexual content and brief graphic nudity. 126 minutes.
Critics hailing HER as breathtakingly original don’t get out much, or at least they don’t know much about science fiction. This overlong story of a man in love with the operating system of his computer is merely a gloss on stories as old as “Pinocchio” and the Pygmalion myth. In science fiction, we’ve seen similar themes in movies like “Metropolis” (1927) and “Electric Dreams” (1984). So how is this something new?
The story involves Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) who writes personal letters for others for a living. The fact that there’s huge business doing this is a surreal touch that might have worked if the whole movie was twisted but it just falls flat here. It’s used to bring out that Theodore is filled with emotion and empathy and love, and in that sense we needed it because Phoenix so underplays the role that you may forget he’s there. His character is lonely, having gotten over a painful divorce from Catherine (Rooney Mara), and he can’t seem to connect with anyone new.
Then he gets a new operating system for his home computer. She is an AI–artificial intelligence–who takes the name Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Besides handling all of the usual processing chores, Samantha wants to learn about Theodore and his world, and become a better fit with him. He starts to fall in love with her, taking her around in a miniature device that allows her to see and hear what he does in the outside world.
Where can Jonze go with the story? An idiosyncratic filmmaker who did the brilliant “Being John Malkovich” and the angry and unwatchable “Where The Wild Things Are,” storytelling is not his long suit. So we get a plot contrivance where there’s another couple–both human–who are neighbors that Theodore talks to about his new love, eventually forming a close bond with Amy (Amy Adams). In another film Samantha might have been the bridge for him to learn how to form a real human relationship, but that’s not the case here.
The story peters out to an unsatisfying ending, because there really wasn’t much there to begin with in the first place. Rod Serling presented a “Twilight Zone” episode about a man involved with a computer with a sexy voice half a century ago, an idea recycled more recently on “The Big Bang Theory” with a smart phone. There are so many stories about AIs wanting to be or acting like humans that it’s become a cliché, yet we’re to take this as if it’s never been done. Its defenders play down the science fiction element and focus on the human need for connection, forgetting that “Lars And The Real Girl” (2007) did just that and didn’t even need an actress to voice the dummy its protagonist fixated on.
So what if it’s unoriginal? Most romantic comedies follow similar paths. Yet the successful ones also give us sparkling dialogue and engaging performances by the leads. Phoenix’s Theodore is anything but engaging, the sort of loser friend you might tell to get out more. Johansson’s voice acting is fine but is being praised all out of proportion for what she has to do. The only one who really emerges unscathed among the principals is Amy Adams. Her role is a lot less flashy than in the current “American Hustle,” but she comes across as real rather than as a mere plot device.
The fact that “Her” is following such a well-trod path might have led Jonze (who both wrote and directed) to spend a bit more time on the script. Why is he retelling this story and what new insights does he bring to it? Instead he–and the film’s critical fans–seem to think he’s breaking new ground. He’s not, and the resulting film is more disappointing than the hype surrounding it lets on.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.