In Spike Jones’ new movie, ‘Her’, Joaquin Phoenix falls head over heels in love with a computer operating system called Samantha. Is it a queer allegory, asks Simon Mernagh?
Given the day that’s in it, it’s fitting that Her is the most romantic big-budget movie to appear on our screens since Moonrise Kingdom. In a weekend saturated with middling, post-awards season cinematic garbage, this age-old story of ‘boy meets operating system’ is mesmerising.
In near-future Los Angeles, much has changed. Technology has advanced to the point where, for instance, people dictate to computers rather than type information into them. Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) composes gorgeous, heart-wrenching and unbearably sweet love-letters as a prized employee for BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, but struggles in his own personal life. He installs a new OS, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), and then something magical happens.
While director Spike Jonze’s latest foray into the surreal is undeniably quirky and inventive, it’s also his most humane fable to date. Jonze enjoys tackling heady concepts, be they the literal cranium explorations of Being John Malkovich or meta-movie madness in Adaptation, and while the idea of Joaquin Phoenix falling in love with his operating system is certainly out-there, it’s treated with the utmost seriousness by everyone involved, nullifying its abject weirdness.
Phoenix gives the most grounded performance of his career. Theodore Twombly is the archetypical everyman, oscillating between going to work, playing video games, filing divorce papers, and engaging in futuristic phone-sex. Johansson is sensational, demonstrating palpable emotional nadirs and zeniths using only her voice. It’s time to take our ScarJo seriously, ladies, gents and Apple Macs.
While modern sci-fi movies are usually action adventures set in space, Her’s futuristic setting is a social commentary on contemporary society. Deftly capturing our ever-evolving relationship with technology, the film reasonably predicts hyper-intelligent A.I. only a handful of years down the road, philosophising on the implications thereof without battering us over the head.
The film is also an absolute hoot. Moments of hilarity dot the film like spots on a leopard, and these are mostly thanks to Chris Pratt’s lovable, if gormless co-worker character, and the condescending alien in Theodore’s computer game, voiced by Jonze himself.
Guys wear rib-high slacks like Tom Selleck from Magnum P.I., and the ever-glamorous Amy Adams rocks shin-length leggings like no-one’s business. Between this and American Hustle, fashionistas might consider raiding their local thrift shops ahead of the crowds – the moustache and pantaloon revolution is nigh.
Is there a queer allegory here? Theodore and Samantha’s relationship is certainly unorthodox, but more broadly Her champions open-mindedness and rejects heteronormative social mores. Sure, romance between man and software rings strange to our senses, but consider how unheard-of loving gay relationships were in movies decades ago.
If you’re among the many who admire Jonze’s glaring talent but hitherto lamented the rather soulless if kooky fruits of his labour, Her smartly nails that sweet spot between absurdity and emotional resonance. Delicate and quietly captivating, it’s a significant artistic achievement.
‘ Her’ is released nationwide today, February 14.
© 2014 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.