Perhaps more than any other movie in recent memory, one’s enjoyment of Her is based on how deeply one buys into the film’s central conceit: the love between a man and his operating system. As beautifully filmed, acted, realized and emotional as Her is, it always comes back to Samantha being, you know, an operating system. The effect is a sort of dueling appreciation, resulting in the above rating (3 stars) as the average of an “excellent” 4 stars and a “poor” 2 stars, depending on how far one is willing to suspend their disbelief.
Her is often funny and quite gorgeous, with modern Los Angeles forming the perfect backdrop for a near-future fable that’s just enough of an extension of reality that we understand and buy into it… to a point. Bright colors, especially of Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix)’s office and wardrobe, including the high-waist pants all men will apparently be wearing soon, contrast nicely with the sleek gray backgrounds, and small quirks such as the silhouetted trees in the elevator window provide almost every location with a touch of character. Phoenix delivers a very strong performance, providing genuine emotions despite the fact that he often has no other performer present to react to. Yet the way that Theodore, a standoffish, creepy sort of fellow, is able to charm a pair of beautiful, successful women is a little far-fetched. Well, that and, you know, his operation system.
Her does an excellent job of establishing Theodore as a character, extending the well of his emotions so deep that he crafts love letters for people he’s never met from little more than short descriptions and a couple of pictures. By spending time in his personal world, his pathetic qualities become more sympathetic, enough so that we see how a charming tone could win him over with just the implication of emotions as strong as his. Johansson bring such life that her disembodied array of binary digits becomes a character with quirks and habits, much of which must be credited to Jonze’s extraordinary screenplay. At some point the film industry is going to have to decide how to recognize performances where the performer isn’t physically present, but not quite yet. If nothing else, Phoenix and Johansson deliver by fully committing to the material, and the much of the film is used to thoroughly explore the topic of a man and his, you know, operating system.
And that’s the problem, for all that Her does well, it always comes back to being about a man in love with his operating system. For all its humor, beauty, emotion, astute observations about love, all its cinematic and thematic merits, even its implications as speculative science fiction, everything comes back to Samantha being an operating system. As caught up as we may become in the emotion there’s an inherent silliness to Theodore whispering sweet nothings or having sex (a scene that is either beautiful or embarrassing depending on where you fall on the believability scale) with a computer program.
Personally, the bridge on which I suspend my disbelief is pretty well supported, enough to handle most of Her without strain, but there comes a point where those cables snap and all suspension is gone. From there on, the silliness of Her cracks open, and no amount of prettiness or commitment can close it again.
For those who completely buy into it, this is an frequently beautiful exploration of personal connection within an isolating society. For those who don’t, it’s a well-made but silly little story about a man and his imaginary friend.