The Most Beautiful Fraud: Her
Even if you’d never heard of him before, you’d know from seeing Spike Jonze’s latest, Her, that he isn’t a first-time director. Visually speaking, it’s powerfully effective, verging on masterful; he manages to set up almost every shot, even relatively inconsequential place-setting ones, in the most precise manner to deliver whatever mood he’s trying for at the moment. Her is, as befits a movie about computerized intelligence, saturated in its own artificiality; it looks like it was made by a high-profile advertising agency. That would be a complaint for a lot of movies, but for Her, which often seems like a blend of a tragicomic romance and an informercial for a future that hasn’t quite arrived yet, it’s perfect; Jonze’s mise en scène is calculated to perfectly fit a movie where commercial products are designed to fill emotional voids. He gets why advertising works so well on our neuroses and desires, and everything about Her, from its IKEA-clean apartment towers to its high-waisted pants of the future, looks like it was developed to nurture those desires.
Just as obviously, though, is the fact that Jonze is a first-time screenwriter. Her has a lot of problems, and they’re ones that might easily have been solved by a more experienced collaborator having a go at the script; it’s hard to imagine, for example, Charlie Kaufman delivering a finished product with as many nagging problems as this movie has. Among the mistakes made here — rookie miscalculations, all of them — are widening the focus when keeping the view narrow would have worked better; miscalculating the right moment to switch from comedy to drama; and, most fatally of all, creating a world full of questions and then failing to answer most of them. This is an error common to a lot of genre specialists (which it is to be sincerely hoped Jonze does not become); though it’s presumptuous of a critic to outline the film he wanted to watch instead of the one he actually saw, the inescapable sensation at the end of Her is that it would have worked just as well or better without the sci-fi trappings.
Her is the story of Theodore Twombly, a gifted writer who’s given up on art and now directs his special empathy towards working at a tech company that artificially hand-crafts personal letters for people unable to express their own feelings. Despite this gift, he’s incapable of truly committing to a relationship himself, and his marriage has recently collapsed — a reality he’s entirely unwilling to face. (This predictive aspect of the plot and the film’s constant exercise of the theme of people being incapable of saying what they really want puts Her in the company of the mumblecore crypto-movement; thankfully, nothing else does.) He lives and works in a near-future Los Angeles that is so similar to our own that it seems immediately disruptive when we’re introduced to the concept of an artificially intelligent computer operating system that is so indistinguishable from a human being that Twombly finds himself falling in love with his — and having to deal with the consequences when it develops more rapidly than he can cope with.
There’s a lot to love in this story. The acting is excellent across the board; Joaquin Phoenix fully lives in the role of the gregarious but reticent Twombly, Amy Adams is predictably excellent as an old friend of his, Chris Pratt is his usual scene-stealing self as a co-worker, and Scarlett Johannson does perhaps the best acting of her career as Samantha, Twombly’s OS. (She does so while never appearing on screen, which is, depending on your perspective, either to her credit or her detriment.) There are some genuinely surprising and fascinating moments, especially when Samantha engages the services of a sexual surrogate in a deeply misguided attempt to step up her relationship with Twombly. It’s pretty funny in several places, and it’s never less than visually engaging. And like very few other romance movies, for I think it’s fair to call Her that despite the myriad distractions, it tries to deliver a lot of emotional truth, and more than a few times, it succeeds.
The biggest problem is that when it doesn’t succeed, it’s usually because the science fiction gimmick gets in the way of the story. Time after time, aspects of Samantha’s nature are questioned when convenient and ignored when it would be difficult to provide answers. Twombly confronts her about the artificiality of her sighs but not of her orgasms; she makes huge leaps forward in her intelligence and perception when the plot requires it to happen (that is, when it is needed to become an artificial barrier to their relationship), but why didn’t it happen when she first came on line? Didn’t anyone beta-test this thing? Twombly is presented as a realistically flawed but human character when the movie wants us to feel for him, but the inherently creepy quality of the whole relationship is never addressed — after all, if Samantha has true emotions and intelligence, being someone else’s property introduces a highly questionable power dynamic; and if she doesn’t, then who cares? This all comes to ahead in the film’s final half-hour, when an aspect of her nature becomes clear when it should have been a factor all along. This clearly was done for plot reasons, to throw a largely arbitrary roadblock into the path of their relationship; so it becomes necessary to ask, why not just make her an actual woman in the first place? By trying to have it both ways, Jonze avoids the most essential of the emotional issues he’s spent a lot of time setting up.
All this might have been a moot point — or at least one a lot easier to ignore — if Her kept its focus just on the relationship between Twombly and Samantha. But like a lot of neophyte writers, Jonze is enamored of his own ideas, and opens up the world to show us that everywhere you go in this bleached-white world, people are developing friendships and romances with their OSs. All this accomplishes is to muddle the plot, suggest dozens of questions to which no answers are forthcoming, and set up conflicts that are never resolved. It changes what could have been a very good movie into a tremendously flawed one; what remains is worth watching, but it sinks under the weight of its own elaborate conceit. Lucky for us, Jonze is already a great director, and he can always get better as a writer. When Kaufman went solo, his first directorial effort was Synecdoche, New York; Jonze may have a masterpiece in him on the level of his former collaborator’s debut, but Her isn’t it.