Her (2013, Spike Jonze)
!!!!! AVOID !!!!!
Her, an attractive interior design catalog taglined with sadly representative self-consciousness as “a Spike Jonze love story,” is the tale of a lonely divorced man whose rebound relationship is with what the movie terms an “operating system” named Samanta, though she’s really more like a cross between the onboard computer on a sci-fi spaceship and Microsoft Sam, manifested in his phone and every screen at his disposal. She guides him through his emails, his dating, and his schedules — and eventually her feminine voice and a rather remarkable AI program apparently arouse him enough that, well, love blossoms. It sounds like the setup for a joke or a very strange short film, not the supposed successor to achingly confessional romantic comedies like Annie Hall that examine the process of growing up and moving on from a long-term love between two flawed people. But for some reason, that’s the movie Jonze decided to make. I’m not being superior here. Female voices are nice. I’ve developed crushes on a few radio announcers over the years. Thankfully, I never quite reached the point when my world was so empty that I had to establish a fictitious interaction with an inner life I invented for a disembodied voice, but I have little doubt that such things happen. Maybe a movie about that would be tragic and interesting. Her is neither; it’s mostly a wish-fulfillment fantasy, along the lines of the fanfic writer’s longing to interact with the characters in his or her favorite TV program or comic book. As in a daydream, the people talk back, the computer types back, the previously flat and monochrome fantasy world suddenly breathes. This isn’t what loneliness feels like. This is self-delusion, gone Hollywood.
Let’s pause a moment. I detested this film. I do not say that mildly. I detested every cute and cuddly and contemptible little second of its painfully bourgeois, self-satisfied vision of life and future, detested its carefully engineered fashion-conscious take on so-called “hipster” culture and the sights and sounds thereof, detested its anti-humanistic ideas about emotion, love, depression, sex, grief and the innate nature of people, and most of all detested the way that it celebrates the economically advantaged whining and self-pity of overgrown man-children as somehow a currency of real life and adulthood. I accept that almost no one else had this response to it, I have as a result dreaded posting this review for months now, and thus I beg you that if such a response is offensive to you that you please read one of the many, many, many celebrations of Her that exist online instead. Please. My feeling — and everything is all about my feelings, me being a dude and all — is that this review could be like a photo that captures how angry I am right now.
The sincerest hope was that Her wouldn’t be as bad as its trailer, which made me roll my eyes so far back into my head I think I’m still sore. I acquiesced to seeing the film based, I think understandably, on the almost universal response to it assuming that Spike Jonze, who has made two films I loved, one I kind of liked, and a lot of videos and shorts I enjoyed, would undercut my expectations and surprise me. No dice; the trailer is precisely indicative of what kind of movie you’re getting. I’ve honest to goodness never wanted to walk out of a theater so much in my life, and was only persuaded to stay because I wasn’t alone (my partner didn’t like it either but felt we’d made it this far) and because I knew it would be disingenuous to post about it here if I didn’t finish. The entire time the film was running and plodding along awkwardly, I kept silently whispering to myself — this can’t really be happening, right? But it was. How much of this is some genetically predetermined fault with me I can’t say, but I truly hated just about every second of this. I get mad again every time I even see the poster.
Perhaps I should admit at the outset that the more I think about it, the more I realize that it’s unlikely any film with this premise could work for me. The idea of an operating system being felt to form an emotional attachment with a human being is so blanket-ludicrous to me that I can’t accept any story beat that comes afterward, really. But I certainly can’t accept one that so drably engages in cutesily maudlin male angst about which it has no sense of irony whatsoever. By male angst I specifically mean the Punch Drunk Love-like dirge of it all, of having one’s needs coddled by a disembodied voice who always tells you what you want or need to hear, and inspires equal amounts of sulking at the first evidence of a life outside of her experience with you. If you want to spend time with the kind of mortally po-faced douchebag whose self-hatred is so absolute that even his relationship with himself (and yes, that’s all this is) gets tied up in petty jealousies and selfish hangups, this is the Citizen Kane of such whiny-bro anxieties — and all shot, to boot, like a futuristic ad for an erectile dysfunction medicine.
Jonze’s new attachment to “sincerity” seems like a codeword for the very greeting card pap he pretends to satirize by making his protagonist essentially a glorified Hallmark copy writer. Part of the function of this sincerity is to ensure that this isn’t all about sex; the legitimate biological need of forging physical connections is practically looked upon as a frowny-faced no-no by a film that views sex either as a series of vocoded oohs and aahs, as a Terrence Malick-like series of vague flashbacks to, oh my gosh, bare limbs coming into contact, or as — well, you know — dead cats or paid surrogates. Indeed, a scene in which the Scarlett Johansson-voiced OS Samantha hires a sexual surrogate to express her love for Joaquin Phoenix’s morbid Theodore is just about the only moment in this “relationship” that comes close to making a lick of sense — and even it is sidelined when he can’t get out of himself to acknowledge his or others’ emotional / sexual needs in a verifiably safe place for them. The problem with all this trumped-up masturbation is that masturbation is a more legitimate and human activity than engaging in inexplicable beachside cavorting with a smartphone, that you talk to. When you’re not getting mad at it, because you’re not its only “lover.” And it’s nonsense to argue that this is an approximation of what long distance relationships started via internet are like. I know a thing or two about those. They involve two people, and that’s enough to invalidate the silly, ignorant comparison.
This is the first of Jonze’s films that he has wholly written, and good heavens let’s hope it’s the last. Scenes don’t follow one another organically; each presents what seems a separate idea and expects things to naturally flow together, which they don’t. Theodore’s friend Amy (Amy Adams, wonderful as always), for instance, is a completely different person with a different life and state of mind from one appearance to the next, and Theodore and Samantha’s “love” follows only the logic of a bizarre, cheap Stages of Relationships self-help book someone on the research team probably checked out from the library. (In one of the many trite occasions of characters talking like script doctors, Theodore even announces that he and HAL 9000 have left the “honeymoon stage.”) The script is specifically formatted for readymade trailering, with every grave or significant “insight,” the moments when you’re really supposed to nod your head and “feel it,” underlined with a careful beat, typically with the help of this supposed comedy’s best joke, its Pitchfork-ready score by Arcade Fire and Owen Pallett.
No such moment is more infuriating than Amy’s “falling in love is a socially acceptable form of insanity.” Uh, no. “Love” is a function of being a compassionate human being, “insanity” is cackling about dumb butthole jokes with your whimsical computer machine. Am I being “judgmental”? What about Jonze himself? His theory here is either that we’re all destined to fall into our screens and forget how to be human, maaaaaan, which is luddite nonsense, or that — horrifyingly — the self-discovery and growth in a relationship is tied specifically to its potential for echo-chambery self-validation, as though all you need to maintain an emotionally healthy existence is to laugh carefree in the streets with an imaginary pal, who likes to “have sex” with you.
Yet the biggest problem with Jonze’s screenplay is that even its idea of what love and relationships are is so hollow it appears to have been formed by a lifetime of Tumblr reblogs and latter-day Malick movies. Similar to the way that Baz Luhrmann thought he was achieving insight about “love” in Moulin Rouge! by just saying the word over and over and over again, Her mistakes vague, pretty, wispy flashbacks to bare seconds of (we’re told) Marital Bliss and Agony for actually putting anything meaningful across about these people, these lives, these “moments,” and a shared existence. It’s precisely the same problem with movies like Amelie and To the Wonder, beloved in some quarters because they have so little to say about love that they can pretend to “universal” truth. Enough with the foolish notion that you can represent broad, cutting notions of relationships with such undeveloped strands of half-thought. It’s not the absence of dialogue, either — Up and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind both went there all the way just visually. But the faux-Super 8 memories that populate Theodore’s head are just as generic as the voice of his original, flat OS.
The one moment of truth in the film comes with Rooney Mara’s appearance as Theodore’s former wife Catherine, at which juncture it actually seems as if Jonze is wise to the inherent silliness in his narrative. Everything Catherine says is on point, especially about Theodore’s infantilism and his obvious inability to cope with a person’s actual human needs, something demonstrated again and again throughout the movie. (It’s been alleged that Jonze based Catherine on his former wife Sofia Coppola, which would only be fair if true; despite Coppola’s denials, does anyone really believe that Giovanni Ribisi’s character in Lost in Translation is not a caricature of Jonze? How intriguing, then, that Scarlett Johansson performed as a stand-in for Coppola in the earlier film.) Yet any potential this moment has for cutting through the cloud of moony-eyed emo is destroyed when her Hurtful, Judgmental remarks are immediately contrasted by Theodore’s good pals who completely and easily accept his oddball indulgence.
Even when things go sour with Samantha, it’s just posited as a typical ending to a relationship that has run its course — I kept thinking of the Tracy scenes in Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Like Tracy, Samantha is malleable, eager-to-please, and naive but is also growing beyond the limited world made available to her by her gruffly weary boyfriend. But in Manhattan, the point is that Allen’s character is an awful bastard who uses her and gives the lie to his own cultivated persona of commitment-free frivolity, which is just another side of the navel-gazing, hollow narcissism exemplified by Theodore here. Her seems to expect us, up to the very end, to — if not entirely side with Theodore — sympathize with his callous behavior. Admittedly it’s only really callous if you accept that Samantha is a sentient being, which I’m not sure I can, but the film gives him plenty of rope, and his outrageous behavior when she so much as lets him know that she has made friends and formed outside interests implies that the one advantage to a hideous future like this is that guys like this dickweed might be so distracted playing with their push-button devices that they could get taken off the dating market for good.
Phoenix is a fine actor, directed evidently by Jonze to behave as much like a morose loser as possible, perpetually on the verge of not a violent breakdown but of mere wallowing tears. He gets off on the misery. Johansson’s much-praised voiceover performance is a lot of enthusiasm to serve to an embarrassing aural variation on the MPDG, not to mention an easy way for Jonze to avoid the physical and facial cues that constitute real cinema of romance because she has no choice but to say what she’s thinking. The Twilight Zone episode “From Agnes with Love” plays with similar ideas and at least approached all this with a sense of absurdity; Jonze, who seemed once to love playful surrealism, instead casts it all in a dimwittedly straightfaced light as though that will make it an act of defiance against irony and the specter of real complexity. Simplicity should be a commendable thing, but this narrative so avoids nuance that it may as well not exist — and the worst part is, it thinks it’s pretty. (And the production design and art direction are frequently dazzling, but that frequently seems to be the easiest thing for facile sci-fi movies to get right, as witness Blade Runner and Star Wars, since I’m alienating everyone today anyway.)
It’s hard to see straight when a movie presents one with so much to annoy. There is the fucking ukulele song, sung as a duet between computer and man — how did anyone survive that without cringing to death? The way that non-white people are viewed as irrelevant novelties. The indications this all makes about the way women are viewed by all involved. That Jonze is sufficiently proud of the romantic qualities of Her to declare it “his” love story implies so many things about his personal life that seem too unsettling to contemplate: when one half of a relationship is a manmade circuitboard, how much value does it imply that you place on that half’s presence or lack thereof if you even posit it as a relationship? As a few other people have pointed out, the title is the film’s greatest lie of all: Her, they call it, but who is it actually about?