Spike Jonze’s Her is a creepy movie — creepy and awkward and uncomfortable. It also happens to be silly, pretentious, self-important, and boring to an unhealthy degree. This is a bad movie, one of the worst of the year — an achievement made all the more remarkable coming from the same guy who gave us the great Being John Malkovich.
Maybe I’m a realist who won’t readily accept the premise that a man would fall in love with an inanimate object, such as a computer operating system. If that’s the case, then why was I so delighted by Lars and the Real Girl, with Ryan Gosling as a lonely man who’s smitten with a sex doll? The answer is simple: Lars and the Real Girl grounds itself in reality by having the supporting people in Lar’s life pretend that they accept his situation, if only to help maintain his fragile emotional state. Her, on the other hand, posits a not-too-distant future where perfectly level-headed people not only fall in love, but fight and break up, with their computer operating systems and no one seems to think it odd. This is not normal human behavior. People don’t act the way people in Her act, and I defy anyone who loves this movie, and who is willing to look past the gorgeous set designs and cinematography, to stop and think about what it is they love so much about it.
The more I think about Her, the more I hate it. I have to tell you about the movie and how I feel about it because that’s my job, but I’d rather being doing anything else right now. Just listen to how things go: Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a greeting card writer fresh off a divorce from the love of his life. He made a mockery of his marriage by not paying enough attention to his wife, and now spends his nights alone in a cavernous apartment overlooking a slightly futuristic downtown Los Angeles. (How he can afford a luxury high-rise on a greeting card writer’s salary is a plot for another movie.) He has only two friends, Amy and Charles (Amy Adams and Matt Letscher), who are married, even though Theodore and Amy dated “for, like, a second” in the past. Amy and Theodore lean on each other for emotional support, until Amy eventually slips away into problems with her own marriage.
One day, Theodore sees an ad for a revolutionary operating system that essentially creates a “conscious” human inside your computer. He buys the software, loads it, inputs a little personal data, and out pops “Samantha,” a cute and precocious “personality” that’s voiced in earnest by Scarlett Johansson. “Samantha” is a wonder. She manages Theodore’s calendar and contacts, reads and composes his emails, reminds him of appointments, and all but runs his life. He calls on her when he needs things, and she responds with speed, accuracy, and occasional sass. And she’s mobile, too, able to be in Theodore’s home computer or cell phone at the tap of an earpiece he wears at all times.
All of this happens in the first thirty minutes and I have to admit, up to that point I thought I was watching an impressive film. Jonze creates a kind of unique, off-kilter Jetsons feel with pastels and a vague retro 60s interior design. The men all wear wool pants gathered and cinched up to their waists. Computers are advanced, but not ostentatiously futuristic. There’s a sense that the past is paying homage to the future. And while the world of Her contains to robots or flying cars, Jonze suggests subtly that such evolution might not be too far off.
So far, so good, right? Well, brace yourself. (minor spoilers ahead)
Theodore and “Samantha” have sex. No, you read that right: they have sex. No penetration, of course; that would be unseemly. Instead, they have a futuristic cyber version of phone sex. “Samantha” the not-real-but-sounds-real computer operating system moans and groans as Theodore tells her all the things he’d do to her if she had a body, until she erupts in a frenzied, gasping orgasm. Creepy, creepy, creepy. The screenplay tries to cleverly side-step the fact that “Samantha” has no brain, and therefore no nerve-endings with which to receive pleasure, by informing us that she’s an amalgam of the thousands of engineers that programmed her, and can evolve based on her current user’s experiences. Really.
As if the orgasm isn’t awkward enough, we discover that Samantha can supposedly “see” what Theodore sees when he points his cell phone at an object. This leads to an unintentionally hilarious scene of Theodore and “Samantha” on a double-date picnic with Theodore’s co-worker, Paul, (a criminally underutilized Chris Pratt) and Paul’s girlfriend. “Samantha” is engaged in a conversation with the others while propped up against a basket, as if she were sitting bodily on the blanket underneath them. The moment when Paul and his girlfriend lean in to address “Samantha” as if she were a real, breathing human being, and not a series of 1s and 0s, elicited the loudest collective guffaw from the theater. It’s truly an absurd moment in an absurd film, and just writing about it makes me giggle all over again.
What the hell was Spike Jonze thinking? And who told him this was a good idea? We spend an agonizing hour listening to Theodore and his computer pour their hearts out to one another, before Theodore becomes suspicious that “Samantha” is cheating on him with other people in her network. Would you like to read that line again? I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried. How could anyone fall for this? Sure, I get the analogy about Theodore turning to technology as a way to retreat from the world; but how could anyone appreciate the analogy when the movie it’s wrapped up in is so patently ridiculous?
Her is benefitting from some terrific reviews. Critics are using fancy film snob terms like “poetic,” “tour de force,” and “visionary.” The movie currently stands at 92% on the Tomatometer. Well, I’d like to challenge every one of those critics to sit down to this movie in six months time, at home, alone with nothing between them and their television but air and really watch this movie. Watch it and think about it, and then decide if perhaps they weren’t duped by an otherwise gifted filmmaker.