Her, film review: 'Scarlett Johansson is playful and flirtatious'


Joaquin Phoenix's Theodore falls for a software package in Spike Jonze's latest

Her is billed as "a Spike Jonze love story" and is being released in time for Valentine’s Day alongside a revival of Sleepless in Seattle.

We are a long way, though, from the world of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. What makes Her so tantalising and original is that it is as much a story about self-delusion and narcissism on the grandest scale as it is a conventional romantic comedy.

It is a sweet-natured and melancholy film, beautifully directed, that manages to be satirical about love in a digital, distracted age without losing its heartfelt quality.

The basic plot is simple enough – a man falls in love with his new computer operating system. We’re in Los Angeles in the near future. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is going through a divorce to his childhood sweetheart, Catherine (Rooney Mara), a successful writer. His job, at which he is extremely skilled, is writing love letters for other people.

Theodore isn’t sure what he wants from life or relationships. As he puts it, in deadpan fashion, “I can’t even prioritise between video games and internet porn.” In one grimly funny scene, we see him having late-night phone sex with a woman (voiced by Kristen Wiig) obsessed with dead animals (“choke me with that dead cat!”) .

On Her: Is mankind heading for a nervous breakdown?

On his daily commute, Theodore sneaks glimpses at intimate pictures of pregnant celebrities and listens to soulful music. His most obvious quality is his empathy. He can guess what people are feeling by their words and body language. When he buys a new software package (“Not just an operating system, it’s a consciousness!”), he becomes besotted with it.

Like all the best romcoms, Her is full of witty dialogue. “Samantha,” as the computer operating system calls herself, is very seductively voiced by Scarlett Johansson. She has a well-developed sense of irony that greatly appeals to Theodore. She even cracks obscene jokes and makes pornographic drawings on his tiny computer screen to entertain him. “Samantha” is as perceptive about his own moods and feelings as he is about those of the old married couples he writes about.

She seems like a person with real feelings. He knows – and we as viewers know – that her intelligence is artificial and that she has simply been programmed in a sophisticated way. But we buy into the illusion just as eagerly as he does.

There is a wonderful exchange between the lovers which sums up Jonze’s skill at combining romantic elements with barbed philosophising. “You seem like a person but you’re just a voice in a computer,” Theodore challenges his sweetheart. She utterly disarms him with her reply: “I can understand how the limited perspective of an unartificial mind might perceive it that way,” she replies.

Theodore isn't sure what he wants from life or relationships Theodore isn't sure what he wants from life or relationships

Jonze sets the film in hi-tech office blocks and apartments. The film is warmly lit by the cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema. There is heavy use of DayGlo colours, especially orange, as if to ensure that the film does not seem too cold in spite of its minimalism and futuristic look. It helps, too, that Theodore is so delightfully played by Phoenix.

In most of his best-known roles, Phoenix has been cast as dark and mercurial characters. He was convincingly and thoroughly obnoxious as a hirsute version of “himself” in Casey Affleck’s mockumentary, I’m Still Here (2010). In Her, by contrast, he brings lightness, humour and an unexpected sensitivity to Theodore. Jonze opens the film with a huge close-up  of him.

He is in almost every scene but he underplays, bringing a gentle irony to his role even at the most climactic moments. Johansson came to the production late on, taking over voice work that was originally performed by the British actor Samantha Morton. She is playful and flirtatious in her delivery.

Joaquin Phoenix brings a gentle irony to the role of Theodore Joaquin Phoenix brings a gentle irony to the role of Theodore

Hollywood romances are often contrived affairs, anyway. Here, Jonze foregrounds the artifice. On the one hand, what Theodore sees (or at least hears) in Samantha is a reflection of himself. She knows him inside out, from his computer hard drive and his emails. The persona she adopts is customised for him. In effect, then, Theodore is falling in love with himself.

Real life and real relationships still intrude. Dotted throughout the film are scenes in which Theodore has encounters with other women – ones who have bodies. Samantha helps vet his dates and sets him up with the beautiful, Ivy League-educated Amelia (Olivia Wilde), but he can’t commit to her in the way that he does to the (non-existent) Samantha.

She has limits – for example, she doesn’t like him kissing her too aggressively – and vulnerabilities that he can’t adjust to. She sees him as “a creepy dude”. His former wife is, likewise, withering about his inability to commit to someone “real”. The one human character with whom he seems completely at ease is Amy (Amy Adams),  primarily because she is so similar to him.

Joaquin Phoenix's Theodore lusts after Scarlett Johansson's voice Joaquin Phoenix's Theodore lusts after Scarlett Johansson's voice

The human characters in Her are weak-willed, sentimental and intellectually puny by comparison with the operating systems they’ve become so dependent on. It wouldn’t take very much tweaking to turn the film into yet another dystopian sci-fi fable about the potential perils of artificial intelligence.

That, though, isn’t Jonze’s way. The darker implications in his story are self-evident. Its ideas about the nature of love (“A form of socially acceptable insanity,” as it is called at one stage) and relationships in the age of social media are bound to be the subject of earnest student essays for years to come. Theodore’s self-obsession is apparent.

However, Her also works perfectly well as a conventional romantic drama with all the usual highs and lows, lovers’ tiffs, reconciliations, outbreaks of jealousy and moments of heartbreak. The only difference – which is as big or as small as audiences want to make it – is that the object of the hero’s affection isn’t really there at all.

Watch the trailer for Her

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace