Lonely, In Love

Why Spike Jonze’s Her could be the most romantic film of the year.
by Philip Matthews

If you want to illuminate your viewing of Spike Jonze’s Her, hunt around online for some of the short films that preceded it. They come from the years between Jonze’s poorly-received live-action Where the Wild Things Are — a movie about depression for little kids — and the great comeback that is Her, his best film since his first, Being John Malkovich, and easily his most personal. Those shorts sometimes have music video cross-over, as in the 29-minute-long Scenes from the Suburbs, both a long promo for an Arcade Fire album and an exploration of the ways in which 80s-movie nostalgia — ET, The Goonies, Red Dawn — crosses over into dread. In the short We Were Once a Fairytale, a drunk and embarrassing Kanye West is having some kind of public meltdown in a nightclub (‘‘I love short girls. Don’t you love short girls?’’), before it tips into the surrealism that Malkovich and other films prepared you for. In scenes of Kanye being inappropriate on the dancefloor, there may even be something of the close-proximity public nuisance factor of the Party Boy character out of Jackass, another Jonze-related project.

But there are two other Jonze short films more similar to Her. Mourir Aupres De Toi (To Die by Your Side) is a bookstore-at-night fantasy — and no ordinary bookstore, but Shakespeare and Co in Paris — with a theme of sweet but doomed romance close to Her. I’m Here is closer still. A sad robot made from pieces of old computers, riding the bus alone like the dog-faced kid in the clip Jonze (pictured below) did for Daft Punk’s “Da Funk” in the 1990s, falls in love with another model. Can androids love, dream and feel? That’s a stupid question. The lonesome robot, voiced by British actor Andrew Garfield, is all feeling. His day job is shelving library books. His apartment is as empty as Theodore Twombly’s in Her. Loneliness is the air these guys breathe, but there is always the urge to reach out. And in both cases, there is an absurdity that keeps the scenario from seeming too morose.

In Her, the key line is ‘‘Are these feelings real or just programmed?’’ We know from I’m Here that a robot can feel ; but can a phone, or more accurately, an operating system, feel? What is the difference between programming and real emotion? Will computers become more human than human? But Her isn’t a ponderous essay on big questions about artificial intelligence. Like I’m Here — and Mourir Aupres De Toi, really — it is a study of love’s delusions and eccentricities. He falls in love with his phone? Well, why shouldn’t he? Doesn’t love mean never having to say you’re Siri?

A melancholy sci-fi love story about the relationship between a man and his phone is the most romantic film of the year. The near future that Jonze presents in Her is a plausible extension of right now — slightly more sad, slightly more lonely, slightly more technologically-enhanced — filmed with the sunlit, hazy, late-afternoon feeling of a commercial. But a commercial for what? The future will be just like now, only more so. It will be hard to distinguish between places you live in, places you work in and places you shop in (the urban settings were in Los Angeles and Shanghai). Apart from anything else, it makes a refreshing change from the apocalyptic wreckage and art-directed dystopias that are now the default future – in Elysium, Oblivion, I Am Legend and others, as though ordinary survival is no longer imaginable .(Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium at least had a political dimension in which planet Earth was a crowded slum and an orbiting satellite was a gated community, with traffic going between them like traffic goes between North Africa and Italy).

In its sci-fi audacity and its deep feeling, Her plays like a more introverted Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which also happened to have been written by Charlie Kaufman, writer of Being John Malkovich and Jonze’s second film, Adaptation. The Kaufman style went even further into berserk surrealism than Her, with paralysingly self-doubting protagonists. The first of the two films felt like a breakthrough, the second was less courageous, ultimately, or maybe just restrained by its need to have some relationship to Susan Orlean’s orchid story (the more Kaufman and the less Orlean, the better).

In both stories there was a goofy philosophical basis that Jonze carried over to his next two features, the troubled Where the Wild Things Are, co-written with Dave Eggers, and then Her, with one of its presiding philosophers even name-checked i.e. western Buddhist Alan Watts, an apt choice for a story that wonders about whether consciousness can be disembodied or go post-human.

If it’s a love story before it’s a science-fiction story, it’s at least partly because of the bruised and emotional performance of Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly. In The Master, and in films by James Gray, Phoenix has been dramatically falling apart. Here he is holding himself back and it’s twice as poignant. Theodore’s emotional life plays out in his day job at Beautiful Handwritten Letters where he becomes a kind of surrogate in the relationships of others, a long-distance online empath. Lives are lived at arm’s length. Sex can be online and anonymous. An operating system named Samantha that talks in the voice of Scarlett Johansson would be a more intimate experience than most.

By all accounts, Johansson was a late addition. The film was shot with Samantha Morton voicing Samantha before Jonze apparently decided while editing that Morton’s voice didn’t quite suit. For a number of reasons, I think Jonze made the right decision and not just because you picture the rest of Johansson when you hear her speak. This incorporeal performance might be Johansson’s best acting, so far. In Her, she is a voice without a body. In Jonathan Glazer’s new Under the Skin she is a body largely without a voice. She has both, almost as a parody of herself, in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon, which is as obvious and dogmatic about the phenomenon of sex lives online as Her is subtle and human. You could say ‘‘the dangers of sex lives online’’ but it’s hard to get on board with those who see Her as intentionally alarming, a warning from the future. It’s not a film for the technophobes who see a bus full of people tapping on their phones as the decline and fall of Western civilisation (that said, that strange bit of news about an oral sex phone app almost sounds like a Her subplot).

Who is ‘‘her’’, anyway? You naturally assume that means Samantha as played by Johansson. But there are several ‘‘hers’’ here, from his ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) to his friend (Amy Adams) to a blind date (Olivia Wilde) to the woman brought to Theodore’s apartment by Samantha (Portia Doubleday). They could all be the ‘‘her’’ that he reflects on. As a film about memory and women, it doesn’t feel so different at times from the places that Terrence Malick was trying to reach in To the Wonder. That film could have been called Her as well, but then so could approximately 40 per cent of cinema. In an interview in Interview with Nicole Holofcener, Jonze talked about aiming for the Malick style in the Catherine flashbacks.

Looking back, you can see the late 90s appearance of Being John Malkovich as emblematic somehow. Jonze sits within a generation of directors who made their debuts in that mid-to-late 90s window, young Americans with often melancholy, white, suburban middle-class concerns. Besides Jonze, there was Alexander Payne, Sofia Coppola, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson and maybe even Charlie Kaufman. Key films from that set would include Lost in Translation, Synecdoche New York, Magnolia, The Master, Rushmore, About Schmidt and Nebraska. It only adds to the sense of melancholy to realise that Philip Seymour Hoffman was at his best in three of them. Of course Jonze and Coppola were married for a time and Lost in Translation was assumed by some to be about the way she felt as his wife. This could be another reason why it made sense that Johansson replaced Morton: in a way, Her is Jonze’s Lost in Translation, as a bittersweet separation and regret film. Why so sad? Maybe there is no sadness quite as sad as that which emanates from someone who seems to have it all.