I cut my romantic-comedy teeth on the 1998 film You’ve Got Mail. For those who don’t know the storyline, Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks meet in an Internet chat room. While they bitterly feud in real life, they simultaneously fall in love through a series of semi-anonymous Internet chat conversations. The movie closes with real life encounters that begin to match the flirtation, fun, and love that Hanks and Ryan found online.
But today, I am writing review the movie Her—a film that left me a bit nostalgic for the simpler days when online dating was still a mysterious and romantic thing and we imagined all the ways that technology would bring us closer to the human beings around us.
Her brought home the Oscar for best original screenplay. Upon accepting the award, director and writer Spike Jonze simply stated that he’d written Her about relationships and intimacy. He has. But, to be a little more precise, Her is a vibrant, wrenching piece about how desperately we want intimacy and how badly we’ve mediated, misunderstood, and abused it.
With gorgeous cinematography, strong acting, and pleasant music, Her is R-rated collage of alcohol, sex, loneliness, and vanity. The wistful refrain of Ecclesiastes has wafted its way through the ages and found an echo into the slightly futuristic high-rise buildings of Los Angeles.
Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a lonely, complex man who writes letters on behalf of other people. Through voice recognition technology, Twombly narrates computer-produced notes that look hand-written. He adds all sorts of personal details to his clients’ intimate letters because he has seen their pictures and written their letter to each other for years. He is dragging his feet at the tail end of a painful divorce and spends his free time playing video games and hanging out with friends. When he’s really lonely, Twombly attempts to fill the void with anonymous sexual encounters over the phone.
Twombly decides to purchase the new OS1—the world’s first artificially intelligent operating system. He decides that the OS will be female; she names herself “Samantha” (voice by Scarlett Johansson) and so begins a textured and tumultuous “relationship” that serves as the storyline for the rest of the film.
We spend a lot of time with Twombly’s face filling the frame and Samantha’s voice in our ear. For most of the film, it looks and sounds like any other relationship. Twombly has become focused, dependent, obsessed with Samantha—walking the streets of LA, computer-camera peeking out of his shirt pocket, content merely to observe the people around him, talking to the voice inserted within his ear. It’s the sort of thing that might have looked crazy a decade ago, but passes as normal looking in today’s fragmented, urban environments.
Her raises all sorts of haunting questions about living well in a tech-saturated culture and its answers leave the viewer less than satisfied. As odd and isolated as Twombly appears, his experience hits closer to home than the urban singleton may wish to admit. Here are a few of the themes that the viewer might consider:
We are living a detached, mediated life:
Twombly finds his evening amusement by arguing with a banal, irritating, cursing little alien child in a video game. It’s innocuous and humorous enough in the moment, but as Twombly uses it as a filler-anecdote on a date, the viewer begins to wonder: how, exactly, video games do affect the human experience?
In another video game sequence, Twombly plays a beta version of the game his friend Amy (Amy Adams) has developed. In the game, the frazzled mother (an avatar that looks eerily like President Obama’s Julia cartoon) loses points for feeding her children sweet cereal, but racks them back up for speeding by other drivers on the shoulder, crashing through stationary objects, and arousing jealousy in all the other moms by remembering to bring the class cupcakes. Theodore and Amy, childless professionals, choose to while away the evening with banal imitation of adult life. It is a game—devoid of the implications and inconvenience of actual spilled milk, broken headlights, or the sobering realities of interpersonal relational drama with the other parents in your kid’s kindergarten class.
Twombly’s happy moments with Samantha look like the stuff of Instagram snapshots. But their attempt to introduce a human sexual surrogate Isabella (played by Portia Doubleday) into the “relationship” doesn’t go as planned. Twombly attempts to encounter the human female as if she were Samantha. The encounter devolves into angry, broken sobs, and loneliness (for computer and humans alike) as soon as Twombly attempts to look the human in the eye.
Our selfishness burdens others:
In what I found to be the most tragic sequences of the film—Twombly agrees to be set up on a blind date with a gorgeous, bright, and cheerful woman played by Olivia Wilde. After sharing laughs, saturating themselves in alcohol and making out, Twombly attempts to move the date towards the bedroom. When the date acknowledges that, at her age, she wishes to secure merely the promise of a second date, before sleeping with a guy, Twombly drops her cold.
In a later conversation with his OS Samantha, Twombly, dizzied by alcohol, acknowledges that he merely wanted to sleep with a girl to fill a void within himself and prove that he was not alone. The scene closes out with Twombly’s fantasies now wrapping around the Samantha—the disembodied voice that arouses, comforts, and satisfies him. Twombly has chosen an affable computer, over the mess of a real relationship.
Sometimes (real) people jolt us back to reality:
There’s a surprising bit of cheerful humanity when Twombly ventures out to celebrate his goddaughter Jocelyn’s (played by Gracie Prewitt) birthday. The 4-yr-old girl wrinkles her nose when her godfather asks her to believe that the lady’s pretty voice, coming from the credit-card sized computer, actually does not have a body… but merely “lives inside the computer.” For a brief moment, one believes that children truly can be wiser than adults.
Towards the end of the film, Twombly’s ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) agrees to meet with him, in order to sign divorce papers. It is a bright and beautiful encounter, until Twombly chooses to divulge the small detail that the lovely girlfriend he is seeing is actually an operating system. Catherine’s explosive, critical response seems overwrought, until you realize that you’ve begun to think that Samantha’s graceful, eager, cheerful voice is more than the product of brilliant engineering.
We long to be known and loved exclusively:
Twombly’s “relationship” with OS Samantha begins to crumble as he realizes that her “love” for him is no longer exclusive—that she has begun talking with other OS’s and human beings and admits to having fallen in love with over 600 other human beings. It is a dizzying and disorienting scene. Twombly sits on the subway stairs and begins to notice the other humans around him—ears plugged with similar tiny microphones and noses buried in their own little computers that looks strangely like a mini prayer books. In this fresh sense of loss, Twombly resorts back to the single human relationship he finds most comforting and stable—his friend Amy.
The film closes with Twombly and Amy emerging unto the roof of their high-rise apartment building. They are both grappling with the pain of lost relationship, but neither of them seems tempted to end their random, lonely lives by making a suicide jump. Earlier in the film Samantha had reflected, “History is just a story we tell ourselves.” But perhaps, below the film’s colorful and troubling surface, the film’s creators have revealed their subconscious hunch that we live in the shadow of something greater, that we were meant to live for so much more. Her offers a very small glimmer of hope and meaning and closes with one human being leaning on the other’s shoulder. Closing credits easily could’ve been Switchfoot’s “We were meant to live for so much more. Have we lost ourselves?”Media: