Friday, May 16, 2014


People once made movies about how computers were to be feared. Now, apparently, they will serve as our lovers, as we're shown in Her, Spike Jonze's critically acclaimed film of last year.

Filmmakers used to be war vets, and European expats on the run from Nazis. Naturally, they were suspicious of technology and how it could be used to possibly harm us. Nowadays, Hollywood is made up mostly of nerdy, effete types, so it's logical that our movie stars will be shown sleeping with their computers, cuddling them, and even getting into silly arguments with them.  Forty-five years ago, Her would have been a comedy starring Don Knotts, or a 'Twilight Zone' episode starring Burgess Meredith. Now it's a melancholy, self-important dirge starring Joaquin Phoenix. That its screenplay won Jonze an Academy Award is a sign that the nerds have gotten their revenge.

Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, whose comical name  seems stolen from an old Rod Serling teleplay  (Jonze may as well have named him Nicolas Nerdface). Twombly is a lonely man who works for a firm that composes "beautiful handwritten" letters for people too lazy or too stupid to write their own. He's very good at his job - his letters are full of love and passion and sentimental yearnings - but he's depressed. He's been separated from his wife for a year and is afraid to sign the divorce papers.  Twombly, who seems stuck in a traditional soon-to-be-divorced man limbo, buys a new operating system for his computer that will supposedly help him answer his email, wake him up on time, and ask how his day went. The OS is named Samantha, and voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Samantha is charming and funny, and it's not long before Twombly is smitten by her husky voice. (Casting Johansson was key to the movie's success. Imagine if Jonze had gone with Gary Busey?)

The story takes place in a rather bland LA of the future. There is a lot of glass, and very little smog, and even a schnook like Twombly lives in a large, lovely apartment (writing those letters must pay well.) There is no overcrowding, there seems to be room for everybody, and the general atmosphere is one of a spacious shopping mall. I saw no one over the age of 40 in Her,  as if the population was made up entirely of interns. There seems to be no television, either. Instead, people are constantly engaged in touch screen technology, so with all of the vacant stares and twitching fingers, everyone looks like a mental patient playing with his food. It's not an attractive future.   I also noticed that women's fashions haven't changed much, but men's pants are high-waisted again. At least Fred Mertz will be happy, and he can trade in Ethel for a computer.  Mustaches are back, too.

Twombly's self-esteem is so shot that he falls in love with Samantha. Although it's never explained to my satisfaction as to how Samantha could feel love, she loves him in return. They have simulated sex. They laugh and cry together. They fight. They make up. Man meets computer. Man loses computer. You know the drill. It's just like Annie Hall, except Annie is a computer.  Just as Annie outgrew Alvy Singer, Samantha outgrows Twombly. 

Maybe it wouldn't all be so hard to digest if it wasn't wrapped up in music and photography geared to make us feel we're watching an emotional epic for the ages. Also, if Samantha was smart enough to memorize 800 of Twombly's emails in a millisecond, she'd probably get tired of Twombly in, say, 20 minutes or so.

The other characters in the movie appear to be going through similar growing pains as Twombly. Some of them, it turns out, are in love with computers, too.  Although some are unhappy, they spout slogans of personal growth that sound like lines plucked from a dog-eared self-help book. They are all quite pleased with themselves for coming to these realizations. Even Samantha, who is probably the most likable character in the story, starts sounding like her dreary human counterparts. "Our past is just a story we keep telling ourselves," she says, sounding like a ditsy housewife whose weekend book club has just finished  The Road Less Traveled.

Phoenix, one of this era's most daring actors, elevates the movie somewhat with his performance.  He's exuberant in his "adventures" with Samantha, taking her to the beach, running through a shopping mall with her in his pocket, even introducing her to his friends.  Phoenix only falters when the movie falters, for not even an actor of Phoenix's caliber can rise above Jonze's claptrap.

Jonze is a heavy-handed director, and he's determined to tell us what to think each step of the way: Twombly feels bad and sits down in front of a giant screen display of a predatory owl coming at him, talons outstretched, as if Twombly is nothing but prey. The image is striking, but so obvious that it defeats itself. In another, Twombly senses something is wrong in his relationship with Samantha, and Jonze immediately cuts to a boiling tea kettle, whistling as if it's about to explode.

Such amateurish images are glaring in a movie that so desperately wants to be intelligent, but none are as bad as the repetitious scenes of Twombly gazing into the sky, his eyes moist, as Owen Pallet's mournful score plays in the background. These scenes take place throughout the movie, with Jonze positioning Twombly as a kind of iconic ubernerd, contemplating the mystery and immensity of life and love.  Director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema bails Jonze out with some beautiful skyscapes, and there's a kind of faded lushness to many of the scenes, but this faux LA never looks or breathes like a real world. It feels as sterile as an operating room, and just about as joyful.

Johansson received great acclaim for her voice work in Her, but her charm as a sexy actress made people forget the most basic flaw in the movie - computers do not feel anything. At various points in the Her I half-expected Samantha to finally tell Twombly "I'm a computer, you know, and I'm just putting on an act because I sensed you needed to be cheered up." But no, Jonze has us believe that Samantha is really feeling all of these emotions, and in much more profound and farreaching ways than us mere bags of blood can ever feel. Jonze, it seems, wants to satisfy the sci-fi geek's eternal mantra that computers are better than humans.

At times, Her reminded me of The Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind, another film where a socially awkward dork pined for a ballbreaking woman, and relied on the comforts of new technology. The women in these movies are always hard and unforgiving, while the men are soft and overly sensitive. You can't even say that the gender roles have been reversed, for women in movies have never been as outright goofy and maudlin as the characters played by Phoenix and Jim Carrey. Jonze's screenplay, when not dragged down by soppy bromides and self-help gibberish, also slips in some subtle misogyny, in that women will eventually let you down, even the computerized ones. 

Twombly's ex-wife (Rooney Mara) is the only one who tells him he's a fool for falling in love with a computer, while everyone else thinks it's kind of cool and trendy. She's the voice of reason, but Jonze's story is so frightened of women that the voice of reason has to come from an angry shrew.  Amy Adams plays one of Twombly's female friends, and she's a dork, too. She designs video games, dresses like a slob, and, as we learn, is also in love with a computer. In other words, she's a dorky guy played by Amy Adams.

Twombly and Adams close out the movie by staring at the sky, their hearts having been broken by computers, their eyes moistening. This, I assume, is supposed to be a sign of hope.  Perhaps humans can learn to love each other again. Perhaps Twombly can grow up. Ray Bradbury, the great fantasist of the 20th century, would have made a nice 12 page story out of this. Despite the Oscar, Jonze is to Bradbury what Oprah Winfrey is to Edward R. Murrow.

There was a time when we imagined a future of flying cars. I'm glad that future never came, because our skies would look ridiculous.  I don't think a future where we fall in love with our computers will happen, either. But I'm sure there are thousands of people who have seen Her and can't wait for the day when they, too, can fall asleep beneath the adoring gaze of a computer that loves them. Oh, what the hell, sign me up.  I'll take the version with Catherine Keener's voice.

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