Everyone is raving about Spike Jonze’s new film, "Her". I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing it because the log line frankly gave me the creeps. Lonely writer develops an unlikely relationship with a newly purchased operating system that’s designed to meet his every need. I thought is this going to be another film where real women are crafted as too mysterious and difficult for grown men to handle?
"Her" plays out to me like a male fantasy, but not in the skilled, yet still insulting way that Woody Allen does it. What? Woody Allen…the man that writes such great parts for women? He does. From Annie Hall to Blue Jasmine. They are juicy, Oscar worthy performances - very complicated, flawed and selfish women. The problem is how they orbit around men. In Allen’s Manhattan, the truly supportive and selfless option for Isaac is Tracy, the 17-year-old high school student who worships him. In Midnight in Paris, Gil is able to break away from his shrewish fiancé, Inez, to find sparks with a very young street vendor who barely speaks English. Young girls get it; age appropriate partners are a drag. They want you to earn a living or be equally supportive of their dreams.
Which brings me back to "Her". This film has all the same tropes. Women are mostly objects, mysterious orbs that fascinate and disappoint our man, Theodore who is played by Joaquin Phoenix. All his memories of Catherine, the wife he can’t seem to let go, are glimpses of rapture where he idolizes and gives in to adorable requests, such as her wrapped in sheets asking to be spooned. When we do meet her in real time, she’s challenging and bitchy and probably off her meds.
The relationship with Samantha, his new operating system, follows that same path. She is intuitive software, meant to evolve. He is beguiled with her from the beginning, giggling as if being amused by a delightful child. She takes care of all his needs, encourages him personally and professionally. Even goads him into going on his first blind date.
The date is an alarmingly attractive woman and from the moment our wounded hero sits down seems to be both physically and emotionally in to him. They laugh and drink and get frisky outside the restaurant where she feels free enough to put her hand down his pants. When abruptly she changes her entire character by asking if this is going anywhere and putting demands on hapless Theo, he can only sigh with relief when she calls him a “bad guy” and storms away.
Luckily there is Samantha to wrap her virtual arms around him. As her education continues she begins to long for a physical connection with Theodore and a relationship develops. This is interesting territory and certainly the hook of the film. And like the wonderful performances that Woody Allen is able to solicit, Jonze too gets his best from Joaquin Phoenix and especially Amy Adams as Theodore’s best friend and confidant. The problem is the main character. Not the actor, the way the character is written. He doesn’t drive the story forward, but is simply reactive.
The world of the film doesn’t help. The choice they made about the not so distant future is that we have evolved to be more eco friendly, where form and function rule the roost. Ironically no one is objectified. It’s a very unsexy world – clothing is functional (men wear high wasted pants so leather belts aren’t needed. Women show no cleavage or wear high heels). Status isn’t an issue. The guy that answers the phones in Theodore’s office dates a lawyer and seems to hetero man flirt with him in a fan boy way. Basically everyone adores and respects each other, so the world at large offers no conflict for Theodore. Which makes his journey completely internal.
After Samantha’s growing intelligence takes her to a place far beyond what she had with Theodore, she must shelf the relationship as one would put up a well-loved book, read often, but now outgrown. Apparently his relationship with Samantha made him realize he had the capacity to truly commit to a woman, is now ready to let go of the failure of his marriage and be open to someone new. I know this because after moping for a while, he curls a smile, gets Amy Adams (his version of Rhoda) from downstairs and drags her to the roof to look at the sparkly lights of the city and supportively cuddle.
I might buy this if I actually saw that growth during his time with Samantha. Their dialogue is very trite and without the luxury of seeing her, there is no opportunity to witness a look, a gesture or glance between them that would signal their connection. He does indicate joy by playing peek a boo with her as the phone at a carnival, his libido is activated by some steamy talk between them (which is a positive mirror to one of the films best scenes involving phone sex and a dead cat) and his capacity for attachment is high lighted in a panic attack at thinking she may have malfunctioned and left him. But none of those scenes rang true to me. The carnival scene felt pushed as if we were being told he’s having fun rather than just witnessing fun and his panic attack at the possibility of losing her wasn’t supported in any scene prior. In fact, he was distancing himself from her after his ex-wife made him feel self-conscience about the relationship.
I went into viewing "Her" with a chip on my shoulder thinking I was going to be annoyed about how the women were crafted. And with the exception of Amy Adam’s character that I adored, I left feeling the same way. But that isn’t the reason I can’t get on the "Her" love train.
The problem for me with "Her" is that Theodore Twombly didn’t learn anything through the course of this film except to accept his divorce, which was inevitable. There was not one real or imagined woman he grew to know better. He may end the film with his arm around Amy, but she started the film as his best friend and supporter so where is the growth?
Jonze clearly had deep and noble intentions with this film and I have a respect and an intellectual appreciation for his journey. But as the lights came up in the theatre, all I could think was… for a film titled "Her"; even Theodore’s final magnanimous action to Catherine was all about HIM.