Joaquin Phoenix really is an amazing actor, he was at his best in The Master, but here in a much less showy performance, he really shines. It’s hard to think of anyone else bringing such careful emotion to a role that could be (and has been) written off as sad male fantasy. But as his face fills the screen for much of the film, it falls to him to take it beyond that – and he does. Theodore Twombly has a funny name and some sex-repelling high-waisted trousers, and he doesn’t show much in the way of an emotional connection with anything, yet Phoenix fills him with a vulnerability and warmth that takes him beyond mere geek.
Theodore is mid-divorce and spending a lot of time alone, preferring the company of his amazing looking video games to actual human contact. His job suits this remoteness perfectly, writing heartfelt letters for people who either don’t have the time, or have forgotten how to. He’s a nice chap, with friends who clearly like him and a boss who thinks he’s great. But the marriage break-up has driven Theodore away from too much socialising and he seems to be settling in for a solitary future. And while outside the world Spike Jonze creates doesn’t seem too different from 2014, a bit sleeker and sunnier maybe, being alone indoors has never been easier. When Theodore installs a new Operating System to his home computer, he is first surprised then intrigued by its intelligence. It’s basically a fruity version of Siri, but called Samantha and breathily voiced by Scarlett Johansson, who not only answers all his questions but asks a few of her own. She’s been programmed almost too well, and starts behaving almost like – well, almost like a human.
Developing a consciousness means Samantha also develops feelings, and it’s not long before the jaunty chit chat between man and machine becomes something a bit more and before you know it, Theodore is in love. And why not? She proves to be the ideal companion: one who is always there when you call, laughs at your jokes and makes a few of their own – who knows everything about you, but doesn’t judge. And who looks just like you imagine them to look. I mean, isn’t that what everyone wants? And isn’t that what we’ve all started to look for in some way online – you’re never alone when you’ve got 1000 followers laughing at your jokes on Twitter and someone has just liked your cat video on YouTube.
Her is set far enough into the future for Theodore’s relationship not to seem entirely bonkers to his friends, and Jonze shows us just enough of the tenderness between him and Samantha to make their attachment believable. But he also shows us that there’s something more here, a man desperate for some human affection but not quite ready to reach for it. Theodore’s relationship with Samantha is a by-the-book love story – with all its ecstasies and pitfalls – it’s a relationship we’re all familiar with. And in Theodore’s failed marriage, bad dates and longstanding best-friendship (with Amy Adams, never anything less than perfect) it’s easy to understand how he sees opting out of the real thing as such an attractive option.
So don’t write Her off as a man’s wank fantasy, that’s just lazy. take a deeper look at what Jonze is saying here about all of us – open your heart to Theodore Twombly and feel a little afraid of our future.