As a grammarian, I commend Spike Jonze for using the objective case to name his comedy Her, because this futuristic tale, about a man who falls in love with his computer’s artificially intelligent operating system, is preoccupied with the old subject-object relationship. The subject is Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely bachelor in a Los Angeles of the near future; his bland, bespectacled face, lit by icy blue eyes and bisected by a cheesy Tom Selleck moustache, fills the screen in gigantic close-ups. My own reaction to the movie was strongly subjective; it didn’t do much for me though it was well made and obviously would be a big zeitgeist favorite. With its story of a man giving in to digital solipsism, Her clearly captures the tenor of the times. But for me the ultimate test is whether a movie also transcends them.
A longtime director of music videos, Jonze got his start in movies directing brainy screenplays by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation); this is Jonze’s first feature from his own script, and it shares with Kaufman’s work a fascination with consciousness and creativity. Theodore works at BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, which creates heartfelt letters for clients who’ve lost the ability to compose one themselves. “I remember when I first started to fall in love with you, like it was last night,” Theodore dictates to his work computer as he fills one order. “Lying naked beside you in that tiny apartment, it suddenly hit me that I was part of this whole larger thing, just like our parents and our parents’ parents.” Theodore exhanges pleasantries with a coworker in their sleek, candy-colored office (just one of the visual pleasures provided by art director Austin Gorg), but in this badly atomized society, people are so self-absorbed their friendships are few and fragile.
Living alone in a fashionably spare high-rise apartment, Theodore has been dragging his heels on signing his divorce papers, and he’s still numbed by heartache. “Play melancholy song,” he tells his handheld computer as he commutes home at the end of the day, a speaker bud stuck in one ear. Lying in bed that night, he asks his computer to locate young women who want phone sex and soon connects with a disembodied voice who talks him through an increasingly kinky bedroom scenario. But things begin to look up after Theodore purchases OS1, a new operating system (given voice by Scarlett Johansson) with an AI component that enables it to think for him. Just as we’re all learning to construct online cocoons for ourselves, filtering out all that dreary stuff about war, famine, and natural disaster, Theodore’s new friend—Samantha, she calls herself—begins to fashion herself around his needs. Like an executive falling in love with his secretary, Theodore is soon smitten with Samantha.
Jonze clearly aspires to tell us where we are in 2014, though Her is also weirdly reminiscent of another movie that told us where we were in 2002. Directed by Andrew Niccol, the futuristic comedy S1m0ne starred Al Pacino as a film director who uses a computer program called Simulation One to create an artificial screen goddess, “Simone,” for his new picture. This digital cool blond takes on a life of her own when the picture is released and she becomes the object of public fascination. I guess that, nowadays, all you need to do to make a zeitgeist movie is to focus on computer technology and people’s endless appetite for illusion. The Social Network (2010), about the founding of Facebook, managed to parlay this same basic formula into an endless succession of awards and top-ten lists; its much-remarked-upon final shot of Mark Zuckerberg trying fruitlessly to connect with an old girlfriend online has, quite naturally, given way to Theodore Twombly.
According to Rotten Tomatoes—which aggregates hundreds of opinions, purees them, and serves them up as a pleasing bisque—Her is “94 percent fresh.” So why can’t I get with the program? Maybe it’s a class thing. The movie takes place in the cool, clean, modern LA of the upper middle class; I’ll never figure out how Theodore affords his deluxe space-age pad, with its dazzling view of the downtown skyline, when he earns his wage writing fake letters. Or maybe it’s a Chicago thing. Having lived here most of my life, I’m accustomed to a world of greed, graft, and long workdays; I love LA, but the people seem so laid-back that they can barely engage with one another. Or maybe it’s a generational thing. Most people who’ve gushed to me about Her have been younger than I am, and some can barely remember a time when life wasn’t measured in keystrokes and mouse clicks.
Most likely, though, it’s a gadget thing. I check my e-mail as often as the next guy, but I don’t have a smart phone and held off for years on even getting a cell. The people I see mesmerized by their devices in public are more naturally sympathetic to a character like Theodore, who’s so inclined to navel gazing that he thinks his computer loves him. The poster for the movie advertises it as “A Spike Jonze Love Story,” but there’s nothing going on here but good, old-fashioned masturbation. Theodore has a wonderful relationship with Samantha; unlike real lovers, they never fight, and she tends to his every need. But when Samantha engages a young swinger to come over to Theodore’s apartment and act as a sex surrogate for her so they can make love, he recoils from the experience.
I was lucky enough to see a live Q&A with Jonze when Her previewed here in December; the most interesting thing he said was that he’d tried to play the story completely straight instead of treating Theodore ironically. This accounts for the movie’s poignancy, but telling the story so subjectively is going to distance someone like me, because I find Theodore to be a complete idiot. I should qualify this by saying that Phoenix and Johansson are both good, though one can’t really compliment their chemistry because Johansson overdubbed her part in a sound studio after the movie was shot (feeding Phoenix lines on the set was actress Samantha Morton). In the old days, Hollywood stars would always have affairs with their costars; I’m guessing that wasn’t the case here, unless it was phone sex.