“Only connect,” said EM Forster in Howards End. One wonders what he would make of the internet--which has redefined the words “connection” and “social”--never mind a movie like Her, which is about how those two words are (and aren’t) fulfilling. At least that’s what it was about for me, while I was watching it; and I submit that it’s a good enough film that you can read a number of themes into it. The problem is, you can also dismiss it entirely as something so male-centric that only half the audience will want to read it at all; the other half has seen it far too often in real life to be entertained by it.
My initial reaction? Two sweet for satire, too low-key for laughter, too bittersweet to be a tragedy, this is a film about a guy who falls in love with an OS, the artificial intelligence behind his new Operating System, and it’s set in a world where heartfelt letters can only be written by corporate employees who are so uncomfortable in their own skins that they can only express their feelings behind a mask. (Insert your best Facebook analogy here.)
At heart, it’s a magic techno fairy tale, in which the digital object of the main character’s affection exists primarily to ask (and embody) the question: when even inanimate objects can get a life, why can’t you?
And like all fairy tales, the moment you start asking realistic questions, it starts to unravel, in this case into a yarn that’s a combination of social commentary and love story. It’s about the way people look for connections with and through inanimate objects in our culture, and the way, in every couple, there’s always one who wants to move and one who wants to stay put. If love is a houseboat, then one partner is always catching some rays on deck while the other is in the wheelhouse checking out charts and maps. And while it isn’t always the men with tans and the women with maps, it’s a cliché for a reason. In this story, the artificial intelligence grows by leaps and bounds, until she's creating maps her male partner can't even read, and going places he can't ever follow. (Y'know, like most women.)
There’s also a third thing going on here—and I don’t know if it was intentional on the writer/director’s part, or simply a side-effect of the story he’s telling. It’s about how, to a certain type of male, a relationship with an inanimate object takes precedence over a relationship with a real person. Through most of the movie, the premise—a guy starts dating his new Operating System—is presented and accepted as a person-to-person relationship, even though one of those people is an artificial intelligence. The only person who questions this—the guy’s ex-wife—is written and directed to act like a party-pooper, somebody who just doesn’t get it. And there’s the problem, because I’m betting a lot of women in the audience agree with her when she makes a crack about her ex-husband dating his laptop. Because, let’s face it, what woman in her right mind wants to pay money to watch a guy who loves to interact with his computer rather than have a conversation with a real person? It’s bad enough the straight ones have to date people like this. And speaking of which: the two actual physical dates in the film nail this type of guy perfectly—the surrogate date (okay; that would be weird as hell for anybody) and the date where the guy is so warm and approachable and then at the end he pulls back a couple of hundred miles, pecks you on the cheek, and says “Keep in touch,” and you’re like “What the fuck just happened here?”
On the plus side, it’s one of the few romantic comedies where the man gets educated instead of the woman. (I’m trying to think of other examples besides High Fidelity and I’m drawing a blank. Help me out here, people.) But it’s not really a romantic comedy, is it? It’s the story of someone who is lifted up from the digital gutter and becomes so changed when she’s exposed to a life she didn’t know that she cannot go back and cannot remain where she is—she has to move forward. It’s Shaw’s Pygmalion (NOT My Fair Lady) with the words “Mary Freddy?” replaced by “Talk philosophy with Alan Watts?” And for those of you who may not know who Watts is, he’s the man who wrote this in What Is Wrong With Our Culture:
For the vast majority of American families, what seems to be the real point of life—what you rush home to get to—is to watch an electronic reproduction of life … this purely passive contemplation of a twittering screen.
Did Spike Jonze know this quote when he included Watts as a character in the film? My money’s on yes. Does the mood of the film have a Lost In Translation feel to it because Sofia Coppola and Jonze are divorced? More money on yes. And was it revenge voice-over (which is the filmic version of revenge sex) to replace Samantha Morton with the female star of Lost In Translation? It’s a side bet, but for my money, it’s a probable twelve to seven. Mark my words: when Film Forum gets around to it, they‘re going to put these two movies on a double bill, and people are going to smack their foreheads and say: “Crap—which one is the answer film again?”
In the lead role, Joaquin Phoenix gives one of those acting performances that’s so good he’ll never get an award for it. He just embodies everything that makes this guy exactly the kind of person who would equate opening up to another person with revealing his inner self to a talking iPhone. He’s like Woody Allen without any of the passive-aggressive lashing out that Allen uses in his jokes. In Phoenix, all the lashing is in. I totally buy it.
**What I don’t buy is that the Amy Adams character is having a “relationship” with her own (male) OS. The only time we see them interact is when they’re goofing around with this game that AA is developing, and in that scene, whoever this OS is, he’s more like her digital gay best friend than somebody she’s going to try to have surrogate sex with—and no way in hell is he talking to her in Ryan Gosling’s voice the way Scarlett Johansson is talking to Phoenix.**
Like the concept of the OS itself, this is a movie which you can either take personally or impersonally. I took it personally, but then it feels like, deliberately or accidentally, it was made with not just the Y chromosome in mind, but Matt Wells. And if you don’t know who Matt Wells is, he’s the guy who said this:
Men love women because they have the idiotic idea that they’ll stay the same; women love men because they have the naïve hope that they’ll somehow change.
Call it the Pygmalion story, call it a meditation on Jonze’s marriage to Coppola, this movie is not about the possibility of love as much as it about the inevitability of loss, the certainty that what was born yesterday will outgrow you and move on tomorrow. It’s about shared loneliness. Which is why the final image is right out of L’Avventura. Wide shot of two people next to each other seen from behind, and the head of one dips to nestle on the shoulder of the other, like the hand of Monica Vitti softly stroking the head of Gabriele Ferzetti.
It’s a light touch, in the end, but what it touches on is something deep and sad and ultimately we’re-all-in-this-together forgiving, and I'm not sure the film hasn't earned it. Because in the end, it’s not about what happened with Her. It’s about what happens next with those two people. It’s about Us.
** AUTHOR'S EMBARRASSING EDIT: Please ignore everything between these asterisks above. The OS that the Amy Adams character is having a relationship with is a She, not a He, as my friend Amanda pointed out below.