New York Film Festival: ‘Her’ normalizes computer love

Joaquin Phoenix plays a man in love with the AI who speaks into his ear with Scarlett Johansson's voice. Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
Joaquin Phoenix plays a man in love with the AI who speaks into his ear with Scarlett Johansson’s voice.
Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

‘Her’
Director: Spike Jonze
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson’s voice
Rating: R
5 (out of 5) Globes

It’s not apparent why, but this year has seen a number of brutally honest looks at relationships. “Before Midnight,” “Sightseers,” “Only Lovers Left Alive,” “Blue is the Warmest Color,” even “Upstream Color” (which can be read as a portrait of a couple working through shared trauma) — these are all films that question coupledom at its very core, asking the tough questions about compatibility and potentially moving on to someone else or just staying by yourself. Some of these relationships couldn’t, or even shouldn’t, last, even if we desperately, delusionally want them to.

Of these, Spike Jonze’s “Her” is the one with the most outside-the-box pair: a man and a Siri-esque Operating System. Joaquin Phoenix is Theodore, a lonely but not socially dysfunctional man going through a reasonably unpleasant divorce. The film is set in the very near future, one almost recognizable as our own, but with slightly fancier technology and greater social acceptance towards people walking around talking to tiny computer doodads in full voice. Theodore is one of these people — he thinks nothing of telling his gadget out loud in a crowded elevator to play his latest melancholic playlist — and an upgrade to a device with an AI customized for each customer sounds like a peachy idea to get him over a brooding hump.

The OS programmed for him — within seconds — winds up voiced by Scarlett Johansson (who is wisely never seen) and names itself Samantha, because she likes the sound of it. Samantha is extremely personable and flirty, a development that’s initially disarming but quickly and unexpectedly soothing. It’s like talking to a close friend — a close friend with a sexy, husky voice — and Theodore opens up to the point that he only hesitates for a second before allowing her complete access to his most private stash: his computer and whatever, shall we say, questionable files are on there. It’s almost inevitable that such extreme intimacy turns to genuine love.

Expect a lot of think pieces in the next couple months about how “Her” is a dark portrait of technology encroaching on our lives. It’s not. Jonze’s perspective is somewhere between non-judgmental and approving. If anything, it normalizes what should be (and probably is) a very abnormal, maybe unhealthy union. It’s a weirdly and refreshingly open-minded film, one that entertains the possibility of deep, profound love between a sentient and artificially sentient being. Theodore’s not a freak. He’s even a bit of a hipster, with his Williamsburg mustache and tucked-in, non-ironed shirts. (Some of them have no collars, which could be an homage to the ersatz-Pynchonian futuristic miniseries “Wild Palms.”) He’s good on dates (to a point), even when that date is Oliva Wilde. And though a depresso who likes sad music (the soundtrack is by Arcade Fire), he’s dynamic and fun with the few people he knows, including a couple (Amy Adams and Matt Lescher) who’ve taken him in as a platonic third wheel-type.

This is Jonze’s first solo script, and if the premise is reminiscent of his “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation.” cohort Charlie Kaufman, it’s thoroughly Jonze, who’s a lot more optimistic (or at least less pessimistic) than Kaufman. He avoids a lot of obvious, lesser directions the story could have gone in. It’s revealed that the number of people who have started dating their OSes is pretty low, meaning a) Theodore and Samantha’s relationship is actually special, and not a mere inevitability, and b) there’s no dumb twist that reveals she only likes him because she was made that way. There’s little persecution against the idea of man-on-computer love. (The way it’s treated is as though it was a cute trend one read about in The New York Times Magazine on a Saturday morning.)

And it treats its central relationship like hard (or relatively hard, maybe medium-level) sci-fi. It wonders what would happen between a human and an artificial intelligence, one capable of limitless growth. Would a computer really want to stay moving at the slow pace of human interaction? If it can read books in tiny increments of a second and compose music, wouldn’t it try more ambitious things, or at least find ways to network with other systems? And wouldn’t a slow, neurotic human eventually feel inadequate, even jealous of dating someone with such powers?

“Her” does not get reactionary and technophobic. [CONTINUE PAST THIS GRAF IF YOU’D LIKE TO AVOID SPOILERS] What winds up causing the first major rift in Theodore and Samantha’s relationship isn’t an interspecies collapse but social pressures: Theodore’s about-to-be-ex (Roomey Mara) is appalled that she’s been replaced in his heart by something without a body. This sends him down one of his apparent usual spirals into non-communicability. (Also note that it’s this that becomes a wedge and not the sex issue. Samantha only brings a third party — or second body — into the equation in an attempt to spice up a sputtering relationship, not because their “sex” isn’t satisfying.)

Even as it goes in very specifically human-OS love directions, “Her” is still recognizably human. It’s about future technology and its limits, but only to a point. Relationships and falling in love are its real concerns. It’s extremely perceptive — sometimes broadly, often specifically. Like “Only Lovers Left Alive,” it’s not really about plot, and its best stretches are where there’s no forward momentum, with Jonze just basking in Theodore and Samantha’s love, which are presenting as normally as love between man and robot could ever be. It’s not clear where it’s going, but only in its final moments does it stumble. It searches, desperately, for, if not closure, then a perfect note to end on. It doesn’t find it, which is one of the few reasons it’s not the movie of the year.


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