Theodore is a lonely man in the final stages of his divorce. When he’s not working as a letter writer, his down time is spent playing video games and occasionally hanging out with friends. He decides to purchase the new OS1, which is advertised as the world’s first artificially intelligent operating system, “It’s not just an operating system, it’s a consciousness,” the ad states. Theodore quickly finds himself drawn in with Samantha, the voice behind his OS1. As they start spending time together they grow closer and closer and eventually find themselves in love. Having fallen in love with his OS, Theodore finds himself dealing with feelings of both great joy and doubt. As an OS, Samantha has powerful intelligence that she uses to help Theodore in ways others hadn’t, but how does she help him deal with his inner conflict of being in love with an OS? Written by Bob Philpot
Monday 14 October 2013
In Spike Jonze’s beautiful, sometimes witty, interestingly numb new film, Her, Joaquin Phoenix plays a sad sack with a trim moustache called Theodore Twombly who one day falls in love with his new operating system. Called “Samantha”, she is voiced by Scarlett Johansson, via a small earpiece that allows them to go on dates to the beach, or the mall where they take apart all the other couples, like Alvy Singer and Annie Hall in Central Park. “I’m becoming much more that than what they programmed” she purrs. It’s a pixel-era Pygmalion, set in a not-too-distant future Los Angeles, where everyone stalks the walkways murmuring into their earpieces, a vast solipsistic tide of humanity. At night the city lights sparkle and blur, like distant diodes on a giant computer chip.
Needless to say, the film is half in love with the loneliness it diagnoses. The whole thing looks like the most expensive ad for urban anomie ever made – Antonioni for the artisanal-cheese set – and for the first hour the conceit is unveiled beautifully, via a brisk series of gags, most of them in the periphery of the main plot. Theo’s workplace is a website called BeautfulHandwrittenLetters.com, where he sits in office composing personal notes for those who can’t be bothered – “Who knew you could rhyme so many words with ‘Penelope’?” says a co-worker, admiringly of his work – while a neighbour, played by a curly haired Amy Adams, designs video games in which mums pick up “Mom points” for feeding the kids or beating the other mothers to the carpool, or else face the ignominious charge “You’ve Failed Your Children!”
The closer we draw to the central romance, the straighter grows the film’s face. “Sometimes I think I’ve felt everything I’m gonna feel,” confides Theo to Samantha, finding in her precisely the sympathetic ear he failed to find in his wife. She is played by Rooney Mara, thus confirming Mara’s position as the ex most men would regret breaking up with, ideally through a happier times montage involving cascades of hair and white sheets seen in chalky sunlight. She gets in the zingiest line in the film, delivered over an exchange of divorce papers – “He couldn’t deal with me, tried to put me on Prozac and now he’s in love with his laptop” – but it doesn’t quite land. It’s like a zinger from one of Woody Allen’s comedies that has somehow drifted into one of his alienation-and-anomie numbers. The script wants things both ways – an obvious outrage to Mara, Phoenix’s love for his computer is seen as entirely normal by others – a penchant for blur that starts with the film’s wispy compositions and seems to spread from there.
Phoenix is as sweet and soulful as we always suspected he might be. Ditching the trail of dysfunction and hiding his scarred lip behind a neat little moustache, spectacles and high-hitched pants, Theo is a portrait of the sad sack as saintly urban eunuch – a great listener and perfect empath whose less attractive attributes are discretely masked from view. An early mention of Theo’s anger issues is never followed up on. A session of phone sex leaves him the bemused victim. Even his consummation with Samantha is discretely blacked out, to spare us the lonely, masturbatory truth. That’s quite a burden of simplicity to put on a figure who must carry a two-hour film; you can detect the strain during some of the date scenes, where Phoenix is required to gurgle with happiness one too many times – he wears the fixed grin of a man on a visit to the dentist.
Johansson has an easier time of it, having long taken over Demi Moore’s mantle as the owner of Hollywood’s huskiest tonsils. If anything she may pack too much punch for Theo, who remains a strangely chaste figure, too hung up on his ex-wife for sex, let alone a relationship. What he really seems to need is a therapist, and so it proves, as the script succumbs to the kind of well-intentioned maundering that ensnares the better kind of romcom: “It’s in this endless space between the words that I’m trying to find myself right now,” says Samantha. How did such a sharply conceived movie end on such a woozy note? It’s almost as if the haze above Los Angeles descends to envelop the rest of the film.
We are a long way from the sprightly anarchy of Being John Malkovich, which remains Jonze’s most fully realised film. Adaptation continued some of the fun, but Where the Wild Things Are felt far too depressed for a children’s fable: a movie about childhood from an adult who seemed to regret growing up – “run for the hills!” it seemed to warn them. “We don’t have a thing in hand!” Her seems to come from the same place – the desire, above all, to be comforted, cradled. The most direct emotional demand comes from Rooney Mara, who tells Theo “Come and spoon me,” and the cry recurs, as if technology had ushered us not into adulthood but made infants of us, trapping and swaddling us in our hi-tech cocoons. Oh well. The hunt resumes. Maybe one day, Jonze will find out and tell us where the wild things are.