The “manic pixie dream girl” has become a well-recognized stereotype in romance movies. She’s bubbly, flirtatious and quirky, but most importantly, she’s a tool for the moody male hero to discover himself/a new lease on life. This usually makes her a bit grating and stale. But in Spike Jonze’s ‘Her,’ this stock character is reimagined with a sci-fi twist and an incredible insightfulness that shakes off all of its stodgy expectations. Here she is an operating system named Samantha. And yet she has more complexity and depth than a slew of MPDGs who came before her. She’s spectacular, as is the film named just for her.
Written and directed by Jonze, ‘Her’ centers on Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), a heartbroken divorcé who yearns to love again, but desperately fears rejection. He pours his deep well of emotions into his work at a letter-writing company that contracts people to tell others the intimate things you don’t know how to say. (Think Hallmark on steroids.) But when a new earpiece-accessible operating system designed to cater to one’s every whim is made available, Theodore is quick to let it — well, her — into his head and heart.
After a filling out a quick questionnaire, Samantha is created for Theodore. She is an OS with a sharp mind, a thirst for knowledge and the breathy voice of Scarlett Johansson. Set in a not-so-distant future, Samantha is never far from Theodore, thanks to cell phone hubs and ever-present earpieces that allow the two to converse freely and often. Soon, they become more than man and machine, but friends, and eventually lovers.
You might think this is a bit too weird to be traditionally romantic, but with Jonze’s delicate directorial hand the story progresses at a pace that gives us time to settle into the incredible world he’s created. He thoughtfully fills the frame with hints at how technology and people function in this time, and carefully unravels the character beats that build Theodore and Samantha’s relationship. But the success of this tender and thoughtful love story should undoubtedly be split with Phoenix and Johansson, who manage to share an enviable and electric chemistry without ever sharing the screen.
Phoenix gives himself over to this curious experiment where most of his crucial scenes involve speaking to the air around him instead of a flesh and blood person. And yet it feels like nothing is missing. He has a natural ease on screen that allows him to even stare off into space and talk with an unseen being and be simply mesmerizing. To her credit, Johansson proves an outstanding voice actor, giving a performance that feels full-bodied when it is literally not. Nonetheless, her portrayal is so full of verve and humor that it is easy to see how Theodore could fall for this voice in his head. Through their awkward flirtations to inside jokes and eventual arguments, they seem a relatable couple, one that even deals in jealousy, double dates and sexual experimentation.
Then ‘Her’ moves past the expected terrain of moody man meets manic pixie dream girl when Samantha’s programming allows her to evolve past Theodore’s desires. Here the narrative turns to something unexpected, bittersweet, and achingly beautiful. In this way, Jonze uses this blend of science fiction and romance to masterfully create a portrait of how humanity’s growing love for technology crosses over with our limitations in love. Remarkably, he wraps this heady romance in a visual world that is stunning and strange.
A mix of awkward and elegant, Theodore’s world is one where men and women share a taste for frumpy high-waisted pants and high collar shirts, and shun makeup and hair product. This style makes stellar supporting player Amy Adams nearly unrecognizable, but serves to set up a distance between our now and theirs. Mostly muted tones punctuated by pop colors of sunny yellows, creamy oranges and pinks paint a world that is dreamy and warm. And all these elements nestle its hero and his story in a lovely embrace that pulls us in too. All in all, ‘Her’ is radiant with thought and emotion, making for one of the most fascinating love stories ever made.