Saturday, January 11, 2014
Her, the new film from Spike Jonze, is a fascinating muddle. Equal parts smart and simple-minded, this thoroughly original offering from Jonze is inventive when it comments on the false intimacy we find with technology but rather less so when it comes to human relationships. There may no one better suited to play role of Theodore Twombly than Joaquin Phoenix, who once again finds emotion in the nooks and crannies of a screwed-up man. Theodore works for a company that composes personal letters for people, including between family members. In the very near future version of Los Angeles in which Her takes place it seems that letter writing has become a boutique industry, like flannel shirts or catalog popcorn. Theodore’s letters win him praise at work (from Chris Pratt, who plays either a boss or a receptionist), but his personal life doesn’t allow for many expressions of feeling. About to be divorced from Catherine (Rooney Mara), Theodore finds brief connections online but doesn’t begin to open up until he purchases an artificially intelligent computer operating system named Samantha whose voice sounds exactly like Scarlett Johansson’s. The operating system role was originally to be played by Samantha Morton, and though Johansson is terrific I wonder what Morton’s tartness might have done to the movie. Samantha quickly learns to get through Theodore’s defenses with some gentle teasing, and soon the two are dating and exploring the sexual possibilities that human-OS relationships have to offer.
Several times in Her our attention is directed to people having conversations with their operating systems by means of an earpiece and a small handheld device. It isn’t clear whether Jonze means to say that all of these conversations are personal in nature or if some of them just involve balancing a checkbook or dinner reservations, but the fact that almost no one thinks Theodore’s relationship is unusual is part of Jonze’s design. The only person not impressed is Catherine, who thinks Samantha is an excuse to keep Theodore from emotional intimacy. I wanted more of Rooney Mara, who is seen several times in Theodore’s gauzy memories but only gets to say her piece in this one scalding scene. Catherine’s point is that Theodore is afraid of real emotions and Her really doesn’t do much to contradict her. Theodore is a man terrified of change in women; we’re told that Catherine earned graduate degrees during their marriage and has published a book. As Samantha gains knowledge and experience she too begins to change, and as her gaze turns outward Theodore starts to feel abandoned. There’s a loose message floating around in Her about a connection with the world leading to connection with one’s self, but at a certain point Samantha longs to connect without the filter of Theodore as tour guide. To put it another way: both Catherine and Samantha were always smarter than Theodore and relationships end once they realize it. Theodore does come to some emotional understanding by the end of Her, but of course it comes in a letter and he never has to put anything on the line. Indeed the ending has so little bite because Jonze stages a cop-out, letting Theodore off the hook for hurting anyone.
The only woman in the movie with whom Theodore finds real comfort is Amy (Amy Adams), a game designer who has her own OS friend and is the only woman in Theodore’s life to accept him on his own terms. (Even an encounter with a sexual surrogate played by Portia Doubleday goes badly when Samantha insists on having a physical stand-in.) The privileging of Theodore’s immaturity is the biggest disappointment of Her. Spike Jonze’s talent for world-building has lost none of its power; he shot Her mostly in Los Angeles with a detour to Shanghai and everything from the light to the architecture has a marvelous otherness. Jonze has some strong ideas about the role computers will play in our future, but he seems less interested in the fact that in the future people will still need each other in the same ways they always have.