I’ll hope to not inject any spoilers here, but Spike
Jonze’s film “Her” is well worth the effort to catch now in theaters for
several reasons. I think it can be valuable to feel a theater audience
experience the journey of the central character played by Joaquin Phoenix as
the story moves forward. And then to overhear reactions as that audience leaves
the theater chatting about a film that does a pretty good job of examining that
thing we most often call “love.”
“Her” is set ambiguously in some future time. Many
reviewers have posited that it’s about 20 years from now, and the film itself
has a superb production design that mixes the familiar with elements clearly
not yet part of our lives. But this ‘futuristic’ setting may actually be a
clever device that causes viewers to recognize how much of the story is about
us and the time we live in right now.
In “Her,” Phoenix’s character Theodore Twombly is shown
working his job, which is to pour his real emotions into the crafting of
personal letters written for “clients” who are unable to say what’s in their
hearts by writing the letters themselves. We come to like Twombly by way of the
sensitive text he creates, and thus we’re pulling for him to figure out his
love life even as the story begins going down its digital path.
Twombly downloads a new operating system for his
computer. When the new “OS” introduces itself in a female voice, Twombly and
the operating system begin learning about each other and eventually both become
convinced they have fallen in love. In the future of “Her,” computer/phones are
the size of a stylized cigarette case with a lens for capturing what’s going on
around the user, allowing the OS to go everywhere with Twombly and become a
companion. Except that unlike contemporary digital social phenomena such as
full-grown men developing a crush on a particular porn star, Twombly is open about
the relationship with his friends and co-workers. He learns of others having a
similar experience and there is no apparent oddness to his going on “dates”
with the OS and in more than one way experiencing “sex” with his new lover.
But far from being a science fiction story, watching this
romance develop in “Her” takes us through what amounts to a series of questions
about what “love” is, what makes it work, and what we want in an intimate
relationship. We get plenty of movies representing people in love; there are
far fewer examining and questioning the actual pathology of love.
How credible is the premise of “Her”? Who among us, with
the possible exception of Governor Chris Christie, does not at some level seek
to be loved unconditionally? To be “loved” by your OS would likely mean no
unpleasant discussions about your weight or your hair falling out, or whether
your career is going well. The OS in “Her” is without a body and never asks
Twombly if her software makes her butt look big or is she’s wrong to be having
coffee with her buff male yoga instructor. Although deeper into the film, it
rocks Twombly when she admits to not being exclusive with him.
As Americans integrate late 20th to 21st century social
changes such as the acceptance of several divorces in one’s romantic resume or
the time-saving efficacy of looking for partners at online sites promising “the
most marriages,” it seems probable that we have a lot of questions about love
itself. How good can it get? Are regular arguments the sign of a relationship’s
health or trouble? And then there’s the crucible of sexual fidelity, which
while long standing as a kind of warranty on love, arguably doesn’t ‘work’ when
put alongside statistics based on real behaviors.
“Her” takes us on a date Twombly has with a real woman,
one that crumbles when questions related to whether having sex will mean some
level of commitment or just capping the evening. That Twombly turns that
disaster into a deepening of his relationship with his OS suggests that the
tidiness of a relationship without physical dimensions is at least convenient.
We already live that way, with our device-driven communications to friends and
even lovers that don’t require us to be there… or to touch. Later in “Her” there’s a clumsy effort to
insert a human surrogate and – well, see the film.
Although I’ve just had a major birthday I’m still
impressed with the number of my similar age male friends who seem unable to
craft lasting relationships with women, or in a nod to our new world of love,
let’s just say others. One is tempted to conclude that perhaps not everyone is
capable of figuring out how to sustain a long-term relationship, but then I often
tell my buddies that everybody deserves love. Maybe that’s just me being
supportive, about something that can’t be known or experienced until it’s
actually known or experienced. But I stand by that, even if 20 years from now
some may ultimately find what they are looking for in a downloadable program.
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