What's On


A movingly astute and distinctively emotive film on the vagaries of love.

Joaquin Phoenix and Olivia Wilde

Her comes in colours, a picturesque pastel palette washing Spike Jonze’s film in sweetness and sentiment – and yet, this is a movie that depicts its breakthrough moment on a screen of absolute darkness. In the former swells the human world and its heady emotions; in the latter dwells technology and its progressively verbal preferences. Yes, this is a feature steeped in the story of a man, an operating system, and the love nurtured between them. 

In his first film since 2009’s Where the Wild Things Are, and one as endearingly offbeat as his hit debut Being John Malkovich, writer/director Jonze tells his tale in imaginative and empathetic confines. The world he envisions yearns for interaction, as solitary souls shuffle through the streets; though chatter is constant, more commonly computers rather than people fill the lonely void. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix, The Master) is one of the unremarkable masses, struggling to enjoy his work – writing heartfelt letters, as outsourced by strangers – as he lumbers through a divorce from his childhood sweetheart (Rooney Mara, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints). Then he obtains the program that changes his paradigm of love: the first operating system with artificial intelligence, his personally-tailored version bearing the name of Samantha (Scarlett Johansson, Don Jon).

A friendship blossoms into something more in the manner of most, as two voices talk and find shared interests. Conversations become laced with flirtation, lives merge towards the intertwined, and blooming affection moves into the realm of the sexual. Jonze handles the conventions of the courtship with care, but never shies away from the concept, the chasm between the physical and the intangible keenly felt. The spark that simmers between Theodore and Samantha is placed in contrast with the awkwardness of his ordinary human connections – with his colleague Paul (Chris Pratt, Delivery Man) and neighbour Amy (Amy Adams, American Hustle). Where his life otherwise distanced and disconnected, his new love brings him alive.

There’s much at play in a rich and textured feature that unravels like a beautiful surprise and never takes the expected path. Satirical commentary on our online, on-the-go, mobile phone-focused modern times is obvious but also earnestly cultivated, yet at Her’s heart remains the most bittersweet of romances, the passion and the possessiveness included. The eccentric and inspired parameters afford ample opportunity for comedy in an effort that is both wittily and warmly funny, never overshadowing the sensitivities at work, nor taking the central idea as a joke. Jonze plots the oh-so-highs and the depressing lows of relationships in vivid but truthful terms; that one of its participants is an intuitive computer entity remains the core of the film’s societal statement, but in its love story, is almost beside the point.

As he is known to do in his aforementioned efforts as well as the excellent Adaptation, the helmer also shows his hand with the prose and pictures of poetry, marrying incisive and evocative dialogue with an array of stunning visuals. The words spoken – from the personal missives drafted by Theodore for others, to the honest and increasingly heartrending exchanges with Samantha – resound with reality, stirring the senses but ringing with the accuracy of that which would be spoken off-screen. The gentle-hued, graciously-composed imagery of cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) almost inspires the reflex to touch and taste the soulful on-screen world, gorgeously rendering the near-future setting with hyper-stylised flourishes and familiar comforts.

And then there’s Phoenix, the model of well-meaning, lovelorn and longing standing out with sincerity and seriousness in a sea of the similarly adrift; and there’s Johansson, mellifluous tones rolling off the tongue to conjure as intense a mental image and as palpable a presence as that experienced by her on-screen paramour. A pairing perfectly pitched, both to the tenor of the film and to the performers’ strengths, forms as their discussions continue for better and for worse. A feature of melancholy and meaning, of mirrored fears of technological omnipresence and human detachment, and one of the most movingly astute and distinctively emotive movies on the vagaries of love, also emerges – in the colour, and in the blackness.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5

Director: Spike Jonze
USA, 2013, 126 mins

Release date: 16 January
Distributor: Sony
Rated: MA

Sarah Ward

Monday 13 January, 2014

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay