Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Her

Alternate Title:  Boy Meets iPhone

One sentence synopsis:   An introverted divorcĂ© finds love and acceptance with his artificially-intelligent Operating System.


Things Havoc liked:  Joaquin Phoenix is a strange man. I suppose that's not exactly a revelation to most of you, but in Phoenix' case, his strangeness often manifests in the types of movies he chooses to make. Films like The Master or Quills, about cults, madness, and the charisma of borderline madmen, to say nothing of whatever I'm Still Here was supposed to be, do not speak to someone over-concerned with their reputation as a bankable star. But while Phoenix' performances have been... uneven to say the least (his turn in Gladiator was among the few things I didn't like in that film), he's usually at his best when playing half-crazed, emotionally weak characters. Enter Her.

In the near-future, Theodore Twombly (how that's pronounced, I have no idea) is a loser. An author at a company that produces fake handwritten notes for people apparently too busy or otherwise incapable of doing so himself, he subsists on video games and anonymous phone sex with strangers, having lost his wife (not to cancer amazingly enough) to divorce some time previously. Mired in loneliness and depression, he one day sees an ad for a new "intelligent" operating system for his phone and computer, and before long he is not only talking to his phone and computer like it were a close friend, but actually falling in love with it.

And we can see why. Played by the completely-unseen Scarlett Johansson, "Samantha" is a perfect AI, not merely casually intelligent, but possessed of a personality and interests right from the get-go. She is warm and understanding and appears, at least, to be interested in Theodore's life and work, though to what extent this is a facet of the fact that he bought her or genuine is left unexplored. In short, she is the perfect companion for a damaged shut-in like Theodore, particularly one whose dating experiences are such disasters (an early attempt at a date with Tron Legacy's Olivia Wilde is a hoot). What I like about this is that Theodore, despite being an evident loser, is not portrayed as some kind of lecherous monster, nor a "damaged" person with one single flaw which Samantha exists to fix. Through her he grows, yes, and begins to appreciate life and the world more, but he remains more or less who he was before, simply happier and more content with his life. His work improves, his disposition is sunnier, he reconnects with friends and otherwise seems to become a better person. As such, the film chooses to sidestep the question of whether a relationship with what amounts to an iPod can be "real", and skips straight to the question of whether or not the "realness" of said relationship is even important at all.

Indeed, one of the better ideas this film has is the fact that it's not just Theodore who's confronting this question. His neighbor and friend Amy (Amy Adams) has an AI as well, one she has not fallen in love with, but formed a fast friendship with, and when Theodore finally confides in her that his new girlfriend is an operating system, she seems more bemused than judgmental. The same cannot be said of Theodore's bitter ex-wife Catherine (Dragon Tattoo's Rooney Mara), who uses the fact as ammunition to stab at Theodore out of bitter resentment. Both of these performances, particularly Adams' (who, after this film and American Hustle, may have finally made her way out of my dislike column), are less about the "amazing" fact that someone has fallen in love with a computer than the characters themselves, and what their questions mean to Theodore.

Indeed, in one real sense, this film has nothing whatsoever to do with AIs or computers at all, but is a simple relationship story, from start to... well that would be saying, but following the progress of two people as they fall in love, fight, break up, get back together again, and live their lives, virtual and otherwise. True, the simple fact of one of the participants being an artificial intelligence does come up now and again, in particular during a very strange and ill-advised "surrogate" session that involves a stand-in woman playing the part of Samantha (and ends the way such a situation would almost certainly end). But this is really just one aspect of these people's lives, and not necessarily the most important one. And while the fact of Samantha's virtual existence remains foremost in our minds as we watch Joaquin Phoenix frolicking with an iPhone, the question of her "realness" is simply not one the film chooses to ask.



Things Havoc disliked:  Unfortunately, that is not the only question the film eschews.

I try always to bear in mind the fact that it is unfair to judge a movie harshly for not being another, different movie, but the fact remains that it's a bit disingenuous to make a movie about a man falling in love with an AI without at least considering certain questions. For one thing, by making Samantha an absolutely perfect replica of a person from the get-go (she boots for the first time with her personality fully-formed and on-display), the movie simply drops all questions concerning AIs and the ability of a computer to feel true feelings, mandating instead that "yes, they can", and leaving it there. I respect the need to get on with the story we're trying to tell, but every so often the film doubles back to hint at some of the questions that it insists on leaving unexplored, as though teasing us with the occasional view of a world just beyond the reach of the camera lens. At one point, Samantha mentions that she talks to thousands of people at the same time as Theodore, and is in fact in love with hundreds of them, yet the film does not actually try to explore this concept beyond the fact that it makes Theodore (understandably) uncomfortable. Theodore's comment that he doesn't know why Samantha pauses before making certain statements, given that she doesn't have to breathe, is the occasion for a bitter fight, but left by the wayside is the question of just why, or more precisely, how did she learn to do this? As the movie progresses, and AIs seem to be evolving in new and radical ways on a worldwide basis, producing clusters that represent the consciousness of dead people and ascending beyond the need for matter (?), the focus remains resolutely away from all of these developments, and instead firmly on Theodore, leaving us to wonder if there is not some other, more interesting film being made just off camera. I can understand if some of these questions are beyond the purview of the film that Spike Jonze is attempting to make here, but then why bring them up at all if you're not going to address them in even the most perfunctory of manners?



Final thoughts:   This may seem like a churlish or even unfair criticism, but it's one that continued to come back to me both during and after the film. Her seeks to jump past the obvious questions that arise with any story about a man and a computer falling in love, but in doing so, seems to forget that absent that particular fact, what we have here is the perfectly mundane story of a romance's progression. Not that there's anything wrong with a simple story told reasonably well, but when you continuously gesture at other elements of the story that you could talk about but have chosen not to, it becomes frustrating instead of heartfelt.

Spike Jonze, director of this film, is known for strange and obtuse stories, generally executed with flair and skill, from Adaptation and Where the Wild Things Are, to the incomparably weird, and yet surreality fascinating Being John Malkovich. This time, he seems to have sought to go with a more simple film, but despite his best efforts, it may be that there isn't a simple film in him, and in the attempt to try and force this one to be simple, I fear he may have simply rendered an otherwise well-told story into one that seems to tease its audience with the notion of a far more interesting tale, hidden just off screen.

Final Score:  6/10

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