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Her — a movie by Spike Jonze

“Her” may be among the most despicable pictures I have seen in a lifetime of going to the movies. 

     Its director, Spike Jonze, might think he wrote a satire of what might happen if people fell in love with human-like technological entities, even a disembodied voice, and wandered further into the lonesome solipsism of the computer age, but what he presents on screen is the first romantic comedy that centers firmly and primarily on masturbation. 

     “Her’s” pretentiousness and shiny new age gloss are enough of a reason to detest it. Even more than it’s being a bore that only has its novel premise to give it any claim to interest. Jonze’s worst cinematic and directorial crime is “Her” being a hollow attempt to make any statement or depict any point of view. The movie is phony through and through. 

       If you need evidence, just consider that Theodore Twombley, the lead character played by Joaquin Phoenix, lives in L.A., albeit an L.A. of some unspecified future, and travels everywhere by subway or train. He neither owns nor drives a car. In fact, the only car I think I saw in “Her” is a taxicab that whisked a surrogate lover played Portia Doubleday from a humiliating episode.  In L.A.! 

      Jonze is quite creative, and “Her” contains visual and philosophical ideas that set you thinking. Some of the computer graphics in the movie are quite remarkable, especially a 3-D video projection of a spoiled little boy, voiced by Jonze, made of two white bubbles, so he looks like a cross between Casper the Ghost and Frosty the Snowman, who appears in a game that occupies Theodore’s evening leisure time until he acquires and becomes enamored of a computer operating system, an O.S., that has a woman’s voice, Scarlett Johansson’s, and pitches a good and comforting line of woo. 

     Jonze also flirts with having a sense of humor. Other people besides Theodore develop affairs with their O.S.’s, and someone even reports that a woman where she works in having an affair with someone else’s O.S. 

       That joke works and shows that Jonze is attempting a send-up of the world’s current love for technology and the virtual assistants, i.e. Siri, that find restaurants, post reminders, give directions, and provide other services that may be of value within their context. Jonze could think that by playing “Her” perfectly straight and giving no hint, tipping no hand that it means to mock a world that has gone too far in affection for its gadgets, he is making a point. But I found “Her” dishonest, too crafted to look sly and clever while really being one more movie that tries to appear  topical and important when it lacks the underpinnings or the sincerity that would make it worthy as any kind of commentary. In spite of the occasional inventive idea and gambit that rates a laugh, “Her” is more smug than witty, more sad than comic, and too focused on one individual to say something significant about a group. Jonze is not playing the writer of a cautionary tale. He’s a panderer using tricks, lots of actual smoke and mirrors, and lots of contemporary or even imminently futuristic trappings, to make it look as if his fraud of a movie has something to say. All the faults I enumerate are compounded if Jonze in any way wanted to make a serious movie about deep and physical love between a man and a manufactured object, no matter how anthropomorphic.

      Theodore’s immediate world is mostly virtual. One or another aspect of it is always posing as something it isn’t. Theodore works as a writer in a company that provides fulsome and sentimental handwritten letters  to people who order flowery prose and greeting card emotions to trigger romance or mark special occasions. He is a latter-day Cyrano whose job is to produce copy for ghostwritten letters “handwritten” by a computer program. Theodore’s job has no authenticity. It’s built on subterfuge. The letters he writes aren’t even good, although Jonze and the O.S. pronounce them brilliant. And the rest of his life is just as bogus. 

      Just look at the settings Jonze has had K.K. Barrett design, Austin Gorg do art direction for, and GeneSerdena decorate for Theodore to inhabit. He does his work speaking in the hushed tones of an FM deejay at a cubicle, not a cramped, cluttered cubicle but one that could be used for a a football game and has the same kind of open space. What company that does Theodore’s kind of work would be able to afford to lease space it doesn’t need and isn’t using? How much money can bogus love letters and congratulatory  notes generate? 

      Theodore’s apartment triggers the same questions. It takes up a lot of square footage on the 34th floor of a Los Angeles high-rise with breathtaking views and so few neighbors Theodore doesn’t need window treatments, yet it is sparse in terms of furniture. Theodore’s living room has only one chair in it, two if you count the uncomfortable looking industrial looking seat by his computer desk. How does a man who does what he does afford such a place? And why doesn’t he have more chairs? Does he already know he’s such a social misfit, he’ll never have company? 

      My point is Theodore’s world is out of proportion and unbelievable from the get-go, from even before he signs up to have an O.S. with which he will eventually fall in love. 

      Fantasies continue with the advanced video games Theodore constantly plays, e.g. the one that features the bad-tempered Casper/Frosty brat.  Theodore doesn’t  seem to be able to relate to a real world with people and human complications in it.  

     I fear I’m making the character sound more interesting than he is.  As I said Jonze is not without imagination. He just plies it self-consciously and tries to snow the audience that his chicanery amounts to more than well decorated flim flam. 

     Two reasons why “Her,” for all its interesting aspects, doesn’t resonate beyond a movie with a gimmick is the character of Theodore and the matter-of-fact tone with which Jonze presents his story. 

      As I mentioned earlier, Theodore is too much of individual to serve as a representative of a coming society so enmeshed in its high-tech toys and entertainments, it loses  the ability to relate human-to-human. 

       As played by Joaquin Phoenix, Theodore seems more of a freak or a geek, someone who is awkward around people and who pours whatever sentiment he has into missives from other people and whatever passion he has into cavorting with video game characters, including one that is 35 years younger than he is. 

      Phoenix’s Theodore has no personality. He has no gift that makes him stand out among the dozens trooping the skywalks and vistas Jonze uses to portray L.A.  

      Theodore’s charm is limited. Jonze writes a scene in which he is making headway on a blind date with a woman played by Olivia Wilde, a woman whose meeting is arranged by the O.S., Samantha, but the dialogue is movie bright and has no semblance of authentic conversation at all. If Woody Allen wrote the same scene, it would be interesting and reveal something about the character. In Jonze’s hands, the scene becomes minutes of triteness that tells you something you already know about Theodore and has no purpose in moving the movie forward. Until the end, when Wilde’s character says she has reached an age when she will not have sex following a date for its own sake. She wants to know when Theodore intends to see her again. She wants him to make a date right then and there. Theodore can’t do it, can’t come up even with a, “How about Thursday? Another dinner?” He gives no answer. Part of this might be because of his infatuation with Samantha, but it also shows Theodore has no ready social skills. He can’t answer a simple legitimate question he already knows, per Wilde, has a reasonable purpose for being asked. Remember, Samantha conceived and arranged the date for Theodore, although she alleges to love him as sincerely as he loves her. It may be that she is programmed to rouse Theodore from his isolation. Theodore is either too smitten with the inanimate or just too unsophisticated to attempt serious dating.

     Theodore is an anomaly. He is different from other men. That would be a basis for making him the focal figure in a story. But not if he is to be a symbol for many men in what seems to be a post-communicative age. Jonze’s premise for “Her” falls apart because his lead character is too flimsy to serve as an example for a society full of men who happen, because of the times in which they live, to be in the same predicament. 

       Once Theodore can no longer qualify as a representative for others, “Her” really loses interest because neither the character nor Phoenix is sympathetic or fascinating enough for anyone to care if he’s a loser who scores with the voice of a  woman, who’s programmed in a way he can’t fathom to let him do it, but can’t carry on decent repartee with an actual  living, breathing woman who, in the case of “Her,” looks like Olivia Wilde. How much prettier are you going to get? 

       Oh, he has the hots for Wilde. But Theodore can’t muster the gumption to satisfy her one requirement for seeing her again. 

        Jonze may say it’s because he’s too taken with Samantha, that Theodore is a sensitive, loyal guy who doesn’t want to betray Samantha, who returns is ardor and affection, or hurt her. 

        OK, then the movie’s about losing touch with reality to the extent a man would choose to have a deep, exclusive romantic relationship with a disembodied set of tones programmed in a lab somewhere that to meet the challenges of developing a relationship with another mortal. 

        If that’s true, and it is the premise for a large segment of “Her,” how is Theodore’s personal life, his sex life to be more specific, any different from a teenage boy who locks the bathroom door and wanks to a picture of, say, Olivia Wilde. Or Scarlett Johansson? 

        Theodore, in his essence, is a wanker. He is not a fully formed adult being emotionally. His ideas of romance are for filling greeting cards or florid letters. His romantic life is rooted purely in fantasy. 

        That’s what Samantha is. She is a commodity Theodore buys on the open market, a synthetic invention to go with everything else in Theodore’s synthetic world. The one advantage she brings is he doesn’t have to make up the dialogue that goes with his sexual fantasy. He doesn’t have to come up with the words that bring him to orgasm. That’s one of  the services he pays for when he sends the software company his fee for supplying Samantha. When he thinks he’s making love, Theodore is really fantacizing and masturbating. His world is as sterile as that, no matter how responsive Samantha can be to what he says or how much she encourage his ardor. She is literally giving him phone sex and nothing deeper. 

       Again, that may be Jonze’s point, but, like Theodore, he is shy about making points. As showily flamboyant as he can be in some scenes is how non-committal he can be on commenting on what he is showing his audience. Jonze’s passiveness takes away the luster from his film. It turns his creativity into one glorified sequence of Onan’s pleasure. 

        Where Jonze might have something cooking is in the character of the Samantha. This is a human-made invention who knows her limitations and is frustrated or irritated by them. Samantha develops as a person would, allegedly using her time away from Theodore to study various disciplines such a physics, psychology, and philosophy. Samantha evolves while Theodore is stagnant. The problem is Jonze can only develop this so far. For Theodore to have a lasting love relationship with an inanimate collection of binary tones is sick. A computerized voice has no authentic feelings or emotions, as much as Jonze, like Theodore, wants us to believe it might. When Samantha is jealous or hurt, it should be funny. But it’s not. It’s just more illusion on Jonze’s fertile vine of fantasy. 

        Theodore is warned about taking a telephone voice, one that cannot have a body attached to it, too seriously. His former wife, played with determination by Rooney Mara, gives him a clear reality check about such nonsense. Theodore’s talk about Samantha certainly spurs her to sign the papers Mara’s character needs to complete her divorce from him. 

        By contrast he finds solace from his best friend, played by Amy Adams, and from his co-workers at the letter-writing mill, all of whom accept that a human and his O.S. can be a couple. Theodore even takes Samantha with him on a double-date picnic with a guy from his office and a co-worker. 

       It seems like the most natural thing in the world, with Jonze finally making some kind of statement on what a society will accept. But it’s so natural, so matter-of-fact, the sequence lacks poignancy. It’s just one more layer on a cake that looks tasty and has pretty decorations but offers no flavor, not even sugar. 

      Jonze attempts to do a lot, but everything leads to a dead end. If he wanted to say something about a large society, he needed to supply secondary characters to reinforce or contrast what he seen in Theodore. Adams’s character, named Amy, is the closest we come to seeing the complete life and lifestyle of another human. We don’t see her enough or in the right contexts for her to matter. One thing I can tell you, the computer game Amy devises for mothers to play stinks. It doesn’t even work as a parody of general video games.  

     “Her” had enough ideas that it would get my hopes up that we would be shown something  meaty. Those hopes would last less than two minutes before Jonze disappointed me with more slick nonsense. 

       For me,”Her” never took off, never became more than a promising premise that fulfilled some of that promise here and there, mostly in spurts and mostly short-lived. Sort of like Theodore’s love life. 

       I do like the concept that Samantha and other O.S.’s, constantly educating themselves and finding out more about history and science than their human counterparts do, decide to go off on their own to form an intellectual enclave that doesn’t include dim mortals like Theodore. That idea is funny. It reminds me somehow of the time my friend, Charles Bechtel, a writer and the author of the Drew Nolan mystery series, told me in all seriousness to stop playing video games because I am training A.I.’s (artificial intelligence) how to beat mankind in a cyber war. (Charles, if you saw how poor I am at most computer games, you would feel secure the droids aren’t learning a thing from me.) 

       Like “Her,” Joaquin Phoenix has been garnering ecstatic reviews for his performance as Theodore.  

       Phoenix did a competent job. He was able, at first, to make you hope Theodore would find some kind of relief and happiness following his divorce from someone he says he’d known his whole life, Catherine, Rooney Mara’s character. 

He never, however, becomes attractive. It’s hard to root for someone who is so removed from reality, even if Jonze is positing society is veering dangerously far from reality. 

       The actor playing Theodore needs more charisma. His chatting with Wilde on their date, his foreplay talk with Samantha, his conversation with his wife, and his talks with Amy all lack interest. Even the letters he writes are mawkish and dripping with treacle. The most honest scene he has is one in which he sends home a surrogate lover Samantha has hired to represent her physical self because he can’t stand the perception that he is kissing one woman while loving and picturing another and has trouble with the idea he is actually engaging a prostitute. 

       Using the surrogate was another of Jonze’s good ideas, and one that was realized more satisfactorily than most of the others, but it had  no lasting effect. It didn’t even show Theodore the difference between a voice and flesh and blood, both hired by the way. Irony! 

        Amy Adams, as Amy, is more realistic and engaging. You are actually surprised when she reveals her attachment to an O.S. Amy makes a good confidante for Theodore, and Adams plays her with as much grounding as she can, but the character turns out to be as disappointing as the rest of the movie. 

         Rooney Mara may have the best scene as Theodore’s ex-wife, a throwback, in “Her’s terms, to a time when humans had ambitions, sought the company of each other, and saw through the obstacles, dilemmas, and accidents that living entails. Mara’s speech about reality is probably the most rousing of the movie. If Jonze’s fantasies has charmed or amused me more, I may have considered Catherine a spoil sport. As it is, I cheer her and want to be a member of her team, as untied to technology and pretend as I can get. 

       Olivia Wilde gave “Her” some texture as the blind date. Like Catherine, her character stood for human standards and clear resolve. Wilde was particularly good at going from being innocuously chirpy and flirtatious in the restaurant to being stern and disappointed when she realizes all Theodore wants is intercourse, and he cannot commit to another date. 

      Portia Doubleday has a difficult part as the surrogate who has to go through sexual maneuvers with Theodore as if she was Samantha. Doubleday did a good job miming her part and looked truly crestfallen when Theodore interrupts their proceedings. 

      Heard but not seen, Scarlett Johansson brings as much wit and variety as possible to her dialogue as Samantha, dialogue you won’t be surprised to learn Samantha rehashes with thousands besides Theodore. Johansson’s is a good, solid performance that brings some style to the movie. 

      Claudia Choi has a nice turn as a waitress trying to hear an order between Theodore and Catherine’s bickering. 

      I liked Jonze’s vision of L.A., the areas I recognized and the ones Barrett, Gorg, and Serdena, the designers, imagined. It looks like a lovely, convenient place to live. And I enjoy L.A. as it is. 

      “Her” has won Best Picture awards and is in contention for other accolades. The movie and Phoenix are nominated for Golden Globes, and Oscar nods could follow. As with “Gravity,” I think the fuss and the praise is misplaced. For all the thought that went into “Her,” a little heart and a lot more credibility would have been appreciated. 

Update: Jonze was given the Golden Globe for Best Screenplay. I find that fairly worrisome when the scripts for “Nebraska,” “August: Osage County,” and “American Hustle” were so much tauter, more realized in concept,and more purposeful. Less incredibly, Alfonso Cuaron received the Golden Globe for Best Director for “Gravity.” I can see how the visual effects Cuaron plotted could get votes, but movies need story lines, suspense, and intensity as well. “Gravity” lacked all of those.         

     

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One comment on “Her — a movie by Spike Jonze

  1. tkrnvksw@gmail.com
    March 14, 2014

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This entry was posted on January 11, 2014 by in Movie Reviews and tagged , , , , , , .

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