Spike Jonze’s new film, Her, is the best romantic prequel to the Terminator franchise I can imagine.
Jonze has always been an enigma to me. I love the man and the bulk of his work. His smart, sarcastic and trippy music videos, short films and television work (he’s a producer on the Jackass series and films, for example, even going so far as to make appearances in old age make-up) are nigh ingrained in my DNA. I even loved his performance in David O. Russell’s Three Kings as the skinny redneck soldier, Conrad Vigg.
But when it comes to his feature film work, I’ve always loved the ideas behind them better than the actual finished product. There was something keeping me from connecting, even as I found them to be intellectually fascinating. Even though I didn’t love the film, I still think Charlie Kaufman should have undoubtedly won an Oscar with his screenplay for Adaptation. It’s a brilliant piece of work. (I’ll go ahead and confess that despite my best intentions, I still haven’t seen Where the Wild Things Are, so feel free to throw your rotten eggs now, indie cinemaphiles and/or hipsters.)
Her, his first ‘adult’ work not written by Kaufman, is by far his most accessible film for me. Part of it may be the fact that, for a science fiction film, it is deeply rooted in modern technology. Most of the ideas seem like they are extensions of what early adopters are using now and it feels like it is a period piece from ten years in the future. Aside from the characters wearing high-waisted pants and looking like they buy their clothes at Silver Lake thrift stores, I mean. Hell, in a movie about artificial intelligence, the most unbelievable aspect is the idea of people actually embracing railway travel in LA.
Aside from a cartoony moment or two that seem amplified to show just how weird and scary humans are, probably an ironic attempt to humanize the computers, it is a very down to earth story that is rooted in the “realness” of feelings and an extension of how relationships have begun to work in a digital world. It’s funny the hesitance that the main character shows to let people know the nature of his relationship given how accepting most of them are. The stigma of online dating has drastically disappeared, but the idea that an online relationship is not real and that people will see through that still exists in the back of people’s minds as they worry about telling their friends.
As someone whose most serious and longest-lasting relationship to date began online with a cartoonist girl from halfway across the country (way back when in the annuls of ancient history), I’ve seen firsthand how connecting with someone without the benefit of physicality works. Some people even go so far as to classify this as a more “pure” form of love because it consists solely of getting to know the person and not letting physical infatuation get in the way. This is even touched on in the film. Personally I’ve never believed that. No more than I would the people for whom a purely physical relationship with almost no mental connection is the most pure form of love, hearkening back to our more animalistic instincts. One denies our basic humanity. The other leaves us slaves to it.
But then, that’s the point, isn’t it? The whole idea of Her is finding “someone” that fills the ever-changing hole in your soul, despite an utterly complex and ever changing state of being that runs the gamut in terms of your needs. It also asks a question we may have to answer soon; whether feelings from the digital aether are any less legitimate than those that originate from our squishy, organic brain chemistry. The feelings that we claim make us specifically human. If we create something that has the same results, does that make them any less real?
At the center of this philosophical dilemma is Theodore Twombly, a writer that makes a living composing personal letters for other people. It seems like a bizarre and outrageous idea. But when one contemplates how many people have tried to express their feelings with a perfect mixtape because they lack the ability to communicate their feelings through words, it suddenly becomes much more understandable that one would hire a professional to convey what they themselves can not. As a recently divorced man in the middle of a terrible funk, he succumbs to Apple-like advertising for new software that promises to change his life. To be fair, it definitely does that.
Joaquin Phoenix’s typical performance style mostly consists of scenery chewing or being a depressed, wall-eyed sack of mashed potatoes with little transition in-between. And Her suits his second skill set well. Sometimes it seems like he’s a refugee from a mumblecore set looking for a gonzo student film. Thankfully Jonze manages to have him stretch and he gets to show some real joy in-between his moping. In these scenes, he really shines. Scarlett Johansson, meanwhile, is the voice of Samantha, Ted’s new artificially intelligent operating system for his computer. Her slightly husky voice and inquisitive manner make it plausible that someone could build a real rapport with her. It also shows that she should probably do more voiceover work. Like Hugo Weaving in V for Vendetta, I find it a shame that the Academy Awards doesn’t recognize performances outside the mainstream in which actors manage to create something compelling without the aid of all the tools normally at their disposal.
Her is frequently funny. Sometimes laugh out loud funny. But it is also uncomfortably intimate with scenes that, while seeming reasonably realistic and artistically valid, are just plain hard to watch for us Midwesterners. Just a warning, I would be mortified to view this film with my parents. It’s so frank with its ideas on sex that I’m actually surprised it ended up with an R rating, despite it not seeming exploitive or necessarily in bad taste for the most part. (Guess I’m just used to the MPAA being on the wrong side of these things.) It also holds some very heartbreaking moments. Its a film that is actually frank with most of its ideas but is free enough to let you interpret them yourself.
Despite my prosthelytizing on what the film seemed to obviously mean, I could see ten people seeing it and many of them walking away with different viewpoints on the characters and what they just went through depending on their experiences. I suppose that’s the true heart of Her. Its plot revolves around people changing at different rates as they take in the world. So it makes sense that the film would change along with its audience.
(Five damns given out of five.)