The tagline on the IMDB page for Spike Jonze’s beautiful new movie, Her, will probably read something about a man falling in love with his operating system. That’s correct, for all intents and purposes, but Her is more a story about heartbreak than it is a cultural exploration of the effects of the digital age on human interaction.
Joaquin Phoenix, Joaquin Phoenix’s nose, Joaquin Phoenix’s mouth, Joaquin Phoenix’s beautiful eyes, Joaquin Phoenix’s upper lip and Scarlett Johansson’s voice do fantastic things in a movie that is remarkably able to match visually what the story does emotionally. Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly is a deeply saddened character. It’s the kind of sad where you just say fuck it, and tell your future iPhone to just give you a sad song, any one. He’s the president of the sad boys club. Not even the entire Uniqlo spring collection can make poor Theodore lift his head and straighten his shoulders.
Movies about love are not uncommon, quite the opposite. The box office has become over-saturated with stories that are keen on re-explaining what it’s like to fall in love from the viewpoint of each and every occupational hazard — falling in love with your boss, falling in love with your lawyer, falling in love with your boss’ lawyer’s gardener. Stories about falling in love are everywhere because the happy ending is written-in. Whatever obstacle the characters are forced to overcome, the outcome remains the same: love forever and always. There are of course exceptions. Chaz and Margot Tenenbaum will be secretly in love forever and Rick and Ilsa will always have Paris, but these are not the rule.
From its onset, Her is confident in what it wants to do. Jonze constructs a beautiful vision of the future and then spends an hour and a half downplaying it, instead focusing on the micro of Theodore. The film bounces between the beauty and colorful landscape of future Los Angeles with it’s perfectly minimal technology and Theodore’s stumbling attempt at being a grown up. Her does not let itself use its setting, the future, as a crutch. Yes, it’s a story about a man falling in love with his operating system, but the film never feels anything less than warm and human. The future and the technology that comes with it are characters, not plot twists. Halfway through, you’ve accepted Samantha, the OS, as Theodore’s girlfriend, and the story starts to reveal itself as a portrait of the sad, corny main character.
Films are set in the future so they can tell us about the present. Jonze uses futuristic technology as a guise through which to explore heartbreak, something no app will ever be able to truly eradicate (though Tinder will try). Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is another exceptional film that follows the same set of narrative instructions; a new piece of technology is introduced, and the audience is introduced to a new way to learn about how two characters tragically fell apart.
I love both Her and Eternal Sunshine, and I don’t mean to talk myself out of creative storytelling. These films are great because they come up with new ways to recount how earth-shattering it is to lose someone you love, which is all a sad sap like me is really interested in. As corny as Her can be at times, it’s near impossible to walk out of it feeling anything less than moved. This is Jonze’s trump card. He’ll guide you through a beautiful landscape and show you beautiful people and end with a meta-statement about the phenomena of being in love. And you believe him wholeheartedly because this is the world we’ve been living in. A world where your operating system has sweet yet perfectly raspy voice of Scarlett Johansson and you can frolic like a child through a crowded Santa Monica pier video chatting with that operating system because you two are in love, and that is all that really matters.