As a person who’s dabbled in online dating, there are times when you can’t help but notice that it feels a bit like Amazon shopping. And if you can look for love the same way I mail order sweatpants, how long before someone develops a similar algorithm for recommended relationships? Based on your past purchases of “sensitive IT professional” and “polyamorous surf bro,” here are some other guys we thought you might like. And heck, if an algorithm could do that, why couldn’t we just develop an artificial intelligence entity based on those same preferences? It’s the eternal “Why can’t I f*ck my algorithm?” question.
That maybe you can go f*ck your algorithm is the plausible “what if” scenario at the heart of Her. All good sci-fi (all fiction, really) starts with some plausible what if scenario, and there are few people as adept at gleeful what iffing as Spike Jonze. His past collaborations with Charlie Kaufman have clearly rubbed off on him as solo writer/director on Her. Her doesn’t spring from as absurd an idea as, say, Being John Malkovich, and the fact that it’s a believable enough extrapolation from current technology makes it easy to interpret it as the usual “stop all the downloadin’, you kids!” critique on modern interaction and blah blah blah. But that’s a misdirect.
If you’re watching Her looking for a pat “message” like some Freudian Armond White acolyte, you’re missing out on the fun. The best part of Her isn’t trying to figure out “what’s Spike Jonze trying to say about our relationship to technology!”, it’s watching him build himself a sandbox and then play around in it for two hours. People call it art “work,” but I tend to like art that feels more like play. Unlike so many filmmakers hung up on the idea of “Filmmaker as Serious Artist,” Jonze never shies away from the silliness of his own ideas. Profound ideas and cheeky armpit farts don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Her is a whimsy cake fried in absurdity.
Her starts with the simple premise, “what if you could fall in love with artificial intelligence that had unique intellect but no physical form?”, and from there, it just keeps snowballing (much like your mother). Joaquin Phoenix plays the archetypal lonely, depressive, white writer dude, Theodore Twombley. The Twomb is in the midst of a divorce and increasingly dissatisfied with his job, where he works composing love letters on behalf of paying customers at BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com. We see rows of cubicles where worker bees sit, dictating letters to their computers, whose voice recognition software translates it into beautiful cursive. Like pretty much everything in Her, it’s overtly silly, but establishes a world where the human touch has been perfected by computers and interpersonal connection is a valued commodity. It’s not that crazy a thought. We already have corporate chat bots that try to empathize and Starbucks baristas trained to say your name three times, manufacturing false intimacy being part of the business model. Her finds a way to be ridiculous and relevant at the same time. Meanwhile, a delightful Chris Pratt plays Twombley’s boss and biggest fan, a unique take on the wacky friend dynamic.
Twombley installs his “personalized operating system,” and surprise surprise, it’s voiced by Scarlett Johansson, whose husky line reads are perfect for imagining an entire person, sight unseen. She always sounds like she just woke up from a night of sex and is walking around the apartment wearing your shirt. Johansson accompanies Twombley by ear piece and sees what he sees through the camera on a business card-sized smartphone device. She starts off as the ultimate riff on the indie witty pedestal pixie, who’s supportive, understanding, and adorably quirky, but so unattainable that she literally doesn’t even have a body.
Related – “Don’t you want to have a body?”
She’s a bodyless artificial entity that you can turn on whenever you feel like being with her. Of course she can never leave you, or make her own life plans. …Right?
With Twombley, Her doesn’t quite pull the old “he’s too awkward to relate to human women!” trope, as seen in Lars and the Real Girl, et al. I think we’re all a little sick of the “awkward dude gets to f*ck” trope (note to screenwriters: awkwardness is not endearing, nor does it make you special). Instead, Twombley’s relationship to women is illustrated by his blind date with Olivia Wilde, in probably her best role so far. He doesn’t creep her out with his awkwardness like you might expect, and he’s not a “loser” per se. Despite their theoretical compatibility and mutual physical attraction, they just fail to relate at some basic level. It’s the perfect failed date scene, intensely familiar but totally original, without falling into a single bad first date trope. It’s honest.
If you thought Looper didn’t have enough super cool future stuff for a sci-fi movie like my roommate Ben, you probably won’t like Her either, but I thoroughly appreciate a subtle take on the future. Watch video of anyone from more than 10 years ago and you’ll see that language and fashion trends evolve in such strange and unpredictable ways. We still don’t have flying cars or time travel, and someone might’ve been able to predict the iPod, but no one could’ve guessed that in 2013, my Whole Foods cashier would have a septum piercing and a Skrillex haircut or that people would be ending their Facebook status updates with “#blessed.” Sci-fi usually goes heavy on the “we have hoverboards and forcefields now!” while leaving everyone’s language and styling basically stuck in whatever time in which the work was produced. Her characters don’t wear silver jumpsuits or spout pidgin gibberish like Tom Hanks in Cloud Atlas, but it’s fun to appreciate the subtle styling inventions – like high weird pants and Nehru collars for guys and collars and puffy sleeves for girls – and some of the subtly newfangled idioms, like “they say you should eat your fruit and drink your vegetables.” Maybe Jonze could’ve taken it further, but I get off on those kinds of little touches.
The beauty of Her is that the plot developments aren’t just tools in service of some pre-decided conclusion (which is so often what films are). They’re just the organic result of Jonze playing with an idea and seeing where it takes him. I’m not going to spoil some of the late second act developments of the film, even though I so desperately want to discuss them, but I don’t think it’s too spoilery to say that Johansson’s character is constantly evolving, which is central to her nature, and mirrors the evolution of the movie itself. The places her evolution takes her are just so bizarre and inventive and hilarious. At one point, she says she’s been talking to Alan Watts, a philosopher who died in 1973 for whom a digital entity has been created using all of his writings, who is voiced by Brian Cox (who should voice everything). As she starts to evolve, she’s still empathetic and understanding, but she starts saying things that aren’t quite comprehensible to the human mind, like “we want to move past matter,” and “the heart’s not like a box that gets filled up.”
A filmmaker who has something to say is a joy to watch, but it’s always a little more fun when that statement is slightly improvisational and just absurd enough to inspire you to wonder.
Joaquin Phoenix, incredible as always, plays a character who perhaps could’ve had a little more of an edge and been a little less full of wonder the whole time, but in light of all the things Her does well, I hardly noticed. Suffice it to say, Her was brilliant at constantly stroking my boner for subtle absurdity. I giggled almost the whole time, both because it was profound and because it was silly.
Banner image via MrJoshGreenberg