For St Valentine’s Day, Niall Anderson reviews Spike Jonze’s, uh-heh, “singular” love story.
Something extraordinary happens at the end of Her. If it happened in real life, it would be a world-altering event: akin to sea creatures flopping up on shore in the Paleozoic and deciding to stay there. Even in purely cinematic terms it’s a big deal – like the monkeys discovering the obelisk in 2001, or the final arrival of the aliens in Close Encounters. If it were to happen in any sphere, the history of human life, the whole idea of life itself, would be rewritten in an instant. But instead what we’re shown is two sad, lonely human beings sitting on a rooftop feeling sorry for themselves.
For some viewers, this conclusion will be of a piece with Her’s interrogation of what human intimacy means in the technologically mediated 21st century. You could read it as the one sadly blissful moment when two people drop their masks, drop their smartphones, and finally connect. You wouldn’t be wrong. But you might also conclude that a great deal of style, intelligence and wit had been expended to get us to a pretty familiar conclusion: that rich Americans can be sad too.
Her is the story of Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a recently divorced office drone whose job is to write loving and intimate letters from one half of a busy couple to another, and back again. In the near future, apparently, people love that intimate tactile receiving-physical-letters thing. Moping about, feeling his moustache and listening to Arcade Fire, Theodore comes across a stand advertising the world’s first pocket Artificial Intelligence. He buys it on a whim and when prompted decides that the A.I. should be female. This is a mistake for a lonely man to make. Not only is the A.I. female: she’s Scarlett Johansson.
The early stretches of the film are wonderfully charming. Phoenix drops the pained intensity of his recent roles and comes across as an entirely convincing goof. The near-future world that he lives in is similarly convincing, again without strain. And Johansson’s A.I. (she names herself Samantha) is so delightfully useful, persuasive and funny that you might be tempted to buy shares in Sodastream after all.
The romance between Theodore and Samantha is a clever parody of yr. actual human romance. They struggle with the ludicrousness of their feelings for one another. They struggle to find a language that each of them is equally comfortable with. They have sex, after a fashion. Theodore introduces Samantha to his friends (with some trepidation) and it all goes okay. Samantha feels emboldened by her newfound security with Theodore to start to seek out friends of her own: mostly other Artificial Intelligences. This makes Theodore jealous. There are fights and reconciliations. There is make-up sex. But something is a bit broken in their relationship and neither of them quite knows how to say it to the other.
Her, as you might have gathered, is more than a bit knowing. This is not a problem. The problem is that the film is more than two hours long. The twin poles of technology and romance aren’t easily kept together over that length of time. So what you get are alternating scenes in which the focus is on technology and then on romance. At length, Her begins to feel willed. Moreover, the film’s single undeniable success – its conjuring of an eminently plausible future world – eventually begins to drag it down. If technology is largely invisible and completely interactive, well then, sure, you might begin to take it for granted – just as, over time, you might begin to take for granted your actual flesh-and-blood lovers and friends. But if that’s the case, what structural purpose is technology playing in this film? Even before Samantha arrived on his desktop, Theodore seemed to have no problem taking for granted his actual flesh-and-blood lovers and friends.
The answer, I suspect, lies with writer-director Spike Jonze – a near-genius who isn’t yet able to approach his subject without some sort of mask or diversion strategy. Her is Jonze’s second consecutive film about divorce – the first being Where The Wild Things Are. In that film Jonze and his writer Dave Eggers took the almost heretical decision to make the boy hero Max older than he is in Maurice Sendak’s book, and to predicate Max’s childish fury on his parents’ impending separation. It was a complete betrayal of the friendly Freudianism of Sendak’s original, but it worked on its own terms: the wrench the viewer feels when Max decides to return from his imaginary world to the real one is genuine. Her tries to engineer a similar emotional kiss-off, but Jonze isn’t quite writer enough to pull it off. You’re left with sad Americans sitting on a roof feeling sad, and the sense that the truly revelatory aspects of Her passed its own creator by.