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Modern romance

Spike Jonze’s tender Her provides new perspective on how love evolves

By Philip Martin

This article was published January 10, 2014 at 2:13 a.m.


Caption: JOAQUIN PHOENIX as Theodore in the romantic drama "HER," directed by Spike Jonze, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Submitted for your consideration: Every relationship is an equation. It has to balance.

If you can bear to, look across the equal sign to your beloved and think about the transactional nature of your affair. You give, and you get. And not all the things that are traded are sexy and/or romantic. There’s security. There’s social standing. There’s the opportunity to provide your parents with grandchildren. Maybe you fear you have too little to offer, maybe you resent the energy that’s being sucked from your side of the formula, maybe you can already feel it sliding apart, the failure to fix and hold, the inevitable collapse into entropy. But maybe you don’t, maybe you feel that everything’s all right, that - like the Beatles said - the love you take is (roughly) equal to the love you make. I hope so. You deserve nothing less.

Why? Well, because you are human, and because we privilege the feelings of our kind over those of other beasts and whatever other sentient entities might wait for us out there. Because we have been instructed since birth to value what is human over what is not. Because we cannot imagine anything so special and beautiful as ourselves.

Spike Jonze’s lovely, tenderly rendered Her is a meditation on the nature of love, a screwball comedy underpinned by a serious subtext. On one level, it is yet another story of a man who falls in love with something neither human nor quite attainable, a premise as old as the human habit of anthropomorphism. In some ways, it’s not too different from the Andrew Niccol sci-fi satire S1m0ne from 2002, or 1984’s Electric Dreams, in which a boy and his PC fall for the same girl.

But neither of those films features a committed, heartbreaking performance from Joaquin Phoenix or a Scarlett Johansson sighing breathy inflections as an unseen but apparently omnipresent ghost within a suite of devices. Theodore Twombly (Phoenix) is a man out of time in a near-future Los Angeles (which appears to have been genetically spliced with Shanghai). He is a romantic who makes an apparently fine living as a writer of letters for people who have lost connection with the analog arts. His antique articulateness is recognized in this brave new world where a soothing, benign skin of technology has been slathered over every surface.

But Theodore is broken. He is separated from his wife (Rooney Mara) who has moved on and wants nothing more from him than his signature on divorce papers. And so when his new operating system, Samantha (Johansson), seems to take an interest in him, he is susceptible. And given the way we live here in 2014 - 30 years past the Orwellian signpost, 30 years past the dated MTV-inspired rhythms of Electric Dreams - there is little in Her that seems implausible. It’s not hard to imagine an artificial intelligence that can do most of the things that Samantha does in the film, and apparent consciousness is an illusion that some programmers are already working toward.

Maybe that’s what gives it such emotional traction -no one in Theodore’s world thinks it’s strange for him to be dating his OS; for the most part they’re happy for him. (Sure, his ex-wife spits out a few cruel truths about how he couldn’t handle a “real woman,” but part of that no doubt springs from her own hurt that she has been replaced in his heart.)

Director Jonze, who wrote the remarkably delicate and assured screenplay, sets his tale in yet another mildly surreal non-place, like the between-floors offices Craig Schwartz inhabited in BeingJohn Malkovich (or the full-size model of Manhattan that figures in his old collaborator Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York). These are places we simultaneously recognize and recognize as impossible, plausible alternatives to our reality that discomfit us the way a nearly but not quite human face does in the so-called “uncanny valley” effect. That’s another way of saying that Her strikes a little too close for comfort, with its depictions of social anxiety and increasingly reluctant emotional engagement.

Theodore - he shares his last name with the late painter Cy, whose calligraphic scribbled-over canvases can produce the same sort of unsettling cognitive frissons as this movie - is basically a lonely spirit who is brought back to life (briefly perhaps, but still) by an artificial being. Maybe that’s sad, but maybe that’s sort of brave, too. There’s a key line here where Amy Adams calls love a “socially acceptable insanity.” Maybe we should all seek to go mad. By any means necessary.

Her 90 Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Chris Pratt, Rooney Mara Director: Spike Jonze Rating: R, for language, sexual content, brief nudity Running time: 126 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 01/10/2014

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