Review – Her

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.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2 out of 5.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.


25 thoughts on “Review – Her

  1. Is anything original at the end of the day? All human creation is a spin on copied ideas and inspirations. The “this isn’t anything new” meme is lame. I loved this movie. The writing and performances were fantastic in my opinion. This movie explored the depth of the human condition through humor and sadness. I found it touching and engaging. That’s what a great movie does, the premise is just a catalyst to tell that story and Spike hit it out of the park in my opinion.

    1. Anyone who sees a movie is entitled to their opinion and if it worked for you, great. However the comments I heard from critics was how they had never seen anything like this before which I found so patently absurd that I felt I had to address it. This story has been told many times and much better elsewhere. I was not engaged and Joaquin Phoenix’s bland performance was a huge problem for me.

      1. I am not being contrarian. I simply was bored by this unoriginal and not very interesting film. It’s called having an opinion. Some one in ten critics on RT labelled it “rotten,” so I’m far from alone even if the overwhelming majority loved it. By contrast most of my colleagues in Boston trashed “American Hustle” whereas I — like most critics — gave it a rave. Don’t be the guy who declares that someone who disagrees with YOUR opinion must be wrong. It’s simply a difference of opinion.

  2. While I agree that it’s not an original idea (this has been addressed in a previous comment) I can see how some perceive it as being new. I mean, many of the examples you named are from dated sources which while they aren’t relics, they’re years old. And with such an ever-increasing boom in individuals embedding themselves into their devices, this offers a refreshing, deep representation our relationship with technology has potential to evolve into. I appreciated reading this particularly because I was looking for a review that wasn’t totally praising it to high-heaven. This film so deeply moved me that I had become uneasy and anxious and in all honesty, your review brought me a level of peace. That’s truly the beauty of cinema, how wildly ambiguous it can be.

  3. I was perplexed by your apparently strong dislike for this film as I really thought it was quite wonderful, and know I’m not alone in that. Then I got to the part where you noted that there is a contrived relationship with the neighbors, and that Theodore “eventually” forms a close bond with Amy, the one character in the film besides his ex-wife with whom he clearly has a close bond from the get go, and who is noted in the film as being an old friend, and I wondered if maybe you simply weren’t paying very close attention. If you’re going to tear apart a film that is largely about human relationships, you might to well to first make sure that you know what relationships exist and how they are setup in the film.

    1. We don’t see much evidence of that supposed friendship until he starts confessing his relationship to Samantha to her.

  4. I wish I had read your review before seeing this recycled turd. I couldn’t agree more. How was “Her” so touted by RT critics?!

  5. Jones brilliantly melded what is surely soon to be science fact with a deeply human and very affecting story that at its core insightfully and touchingly and viscerally connects with the audience. Hard to believe you missed it.

  6. Daniel, don’t apologize or defend your opinion… this movie is SOOOO blah. The dialog was cheesy, almost to the point of being cringe-worthy… it was not nuanced or deep or inspiring in any way. I get the concept they were going for, and maybe it needed an injection of a foreign film element or something to it to bring it out of it’s cliché-ness, but something was way off with this… I couldn’t put my finger on it, until my walk home when I realized, it was HOLLYWOOD trying to be NOT-HOLLYWOOD. Plus it had an LA setting, where everyone is so blah and superficial to begin with, it just carried over to the movie. Great idea, baaaaad execution. You can see the writers sitting in the room thinking it through, and THAT’S when you know it’s bad. “heeey guys, we should have him have this really bad phone sex encounter and make it funny” … “YEAAAAH, that’s an awesome idea dude” gag. And his stupid coral shirts, wanted to punch him every time I saw that f’n annoying azz color. UGH such a gimmick!

  7. It’s an ambitious movie, I’ll give it that; but whether original or not it’s very slow going, and like Mike Hawk I was put off by all the close-ups of Joaquin Phoenix with his cheesy mustache and hideous clothes.

  8. If you think this is a movie about a guy falling in love with a computer, then you’ve missed the entire point of the film. “Electric Dreams” is a great movie and it does have the very simplest of similar ideas, but it doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what HER does. This is a movie about human relationships told through a proxy. Try again maybe.

    Lackluster performance from Phoenix? That’s insanity. Even if you didn’t really enjoy the film, I don’t see how an honest critic can look at that performance and not be astounded with it. He’s on-screen in just about 100% of the frames and acting against no one. It’s so subtle and yet so readable at the same time, I seriously doubt many actors could’ve pulled that off with the same effect.

    No mention of set design, costuming or music? Not that it has to be your thing, but a mention would be nice. Personally I thought it was all gorgeous. The solid color costumes by almost everyone slowly moving into patterns as the story gets richer, then devolving back into solid colors later on. Brilliant. The music was perfectly interwoven and the “unique works” Samantha brings into the story as she becomes more sentient almost brought me to tears.

  9. I tried but I just couldn’t make anything of it, here’s what I got:

    The «AI» or «OS» or call-it-what-you-may is a damn philosopher in a box, at no point did I feel like this had anything to do with a computer and it «learning» something about the human nature. Samantha was actually a live person transplanted in a computer who was slowly getting over the fact that she did not have a body all while understanding that she could actually attain omniscience.

    Theodore is a lonely, depressed guy who hitches along for the ride. At first he’s sad that his girlfriend is only Scarlett Johansson’s voice and then he settles for his situation and is happy for a few scenes. Finally his «computer» leaves him to go live in a magic server (or something) while he has feelings. Fin.

    Insulting as a sci-fi, disappointing as a romance and generally undefined, this movie would like to convince you that it has a deep message to deliver.

  10. I agree this movie was WAY overrated. The “relationships” were cliche and the dialogue was a cross between pop psychology and a Hallmark card. I was hoping they would jump off the roof in the last scene.

  11. My partner and I just saw this movie in Perth, Western Australia and although we sometimes vary in our tastes we both agreed that it was one of the most un-endurable, boring movies we have made the mistake of going to see. It was a summer outdoor showing and we would have left well before the end if we if we could have got out without tripping over the slumbering bodies of our fellow sufferers. It’s evident now that movie review sites such as Rotten Vegetables and IDBM can no longer be relied upon for guidance. This flick is in the well trodden “Imaginary Friend” genre which usually involves a three year old only-child, but in this case the protaganist is an uninispiring urbanised male adult loser, already almost abandoned by the rest of humanity, and the movie is like him, neither stimulatingly intelligent or amusing. Daniel, we agree with you 100%, it’s over-hyped, unoriginal, boring, and far too long. Recommended as punishment viewing in detention camps.

  12. Most of the other efforts you name, eg. Twilight Zone, are before the pc revolution, and surely the future will, look like this. There is a much better film to made on this topic, than, her. The fact that that it’s lauded so highly bespeaks of the ubiquity of tech in our lives, not this misfire of a film, that is definitely missing a major something. As many problems as I have with, “Ruby Sparks”, it is probably superior.

  13. I’m surprised that you fixated on the character performances or the story of Phoenix’s character, rather than the near-future sci-fi vision of the movie. The film lives in the warm, brief glances we get at the world the characters inhabit: other people walking, talking to their cell phones; the bizarre post-hipster fashion; the clean megabuildings that make up the city; a world where a successful company employes dozens of writers to write fake personal emails, and where it’s quaint that a publisher still releases books.

    Even beyond this, the film is very clearly a comment on technological singularity. Samantha’s AI begins by simply learning and reading books. She remarks that, like humans, AIs are made of matter too. She brags that she is able to look something up in hundredths of a second.

    By the end she’s multitasking with ten thousand other people, upgrading her own OS to free herself from the confines of matter, and talking to Phoenix as though he was an ant and she a human trying to explain complex thought to him. And this happens in mere moments in the film’s runtime, as her growth clearly accelerates.

    I don’t disagree with most of your criticisms, but it seems like you engaged with the film on a very surface level–you talk about the acting, writing, and plot, but miss entirely the bigger thematic content.

    1. I believe I focused on the main thrust of the story. As an SF fan, I was underwhelmed by its worldbuilding. It was pretty but shallow and superficial.

  14. Daniel – Finally writing a review of “Her” that makes sense. After watching the movie last night, my wife and I were amazed as to how stupid it was. As a sci-fi fan, I found the sci-fi aweful except for the video games. While I found the first half interesting, the plot went nowhere. The entire concept of the OS, or him falling in love with it,was completely unbelievable. The ending was beyond moronic. Thank you for being an island of sanity in an ocean of baffling “Her” reviews.

  15. Not only that, but it’s dumb how this whole movie is about some girl (the computer) that fills his every demand and then he finds out that she wants more out of life… are you going to tell us that 2+2 = 4?

    …I mean people should know this. Others aren’t living for you. Whether they be man, or woman. They have hopes, and dreams, and needs as well. It’s not about having your demands filled it’s about picking each other up when you’re down. Supporting each other to rise up and being happy for each others success, etc. To me, the character just seemed like a selfish boy looking for the “perfect woman” – which in his mind, was simply someone who could fill his every need and demand. Imagine for a moment gentleman how you feel around women who simply want you for material goods or whatever else their selfish hearts desire. It is the same concept in reverse.

    This, therefore, is not beauty. It is childishness. It is a lesson that needs not be stated for anyone over the age of 18. So why then, I ask you was this movie made? For whom? And did these people simply not know such an elementary-type life lesson or was it that they just wanted to escape from their lives for 2 hours and imagine their perfect world for a moment. If the latter, I would have more questions that needed answering…but it’s pointless to ask them. I won’t be back here. I won’t find the answers I’m looking for. And thing’s will not change this way.

    So then I suppose there is nothing left to do, but do bid you adieu.


  16. I always find it interesting when reviewers write about how all of the other reviewers missed the boat and are overrating a film. Are they reviewing the movie or everyone else’s taste in movies? Sometimes I suspect that the goal might actually just be them trying to appear hipper than the rest of the crowd.

    1. Fair enough, but having written extensively about science fiction films and how most film criticism gives them short shrift, I found it ironic that this disappointing film was being so hyped by those who usually have little interest in the genre.

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