What on earth did I just watch?
How do you fall in love with a computer program? Throughout the entire runtime of Her, that’s the only thought that was peaking through my mind. I wasn’t thinking about Joaquin Phoenix’s deliberate performance. I wasn’t thinking about how sweet and serene Scarlett Johansson’s voice sounded. I didn’t think about how clever the story was or how passionate Spike Jonze’s direction was. The only thing I was thinking about was how hard it must be to maintain a relationship with a piece of machinery. Can you imagine how awkward those morning encounters must be?
Taking place in the not-too-distant future, Her follows the story of Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), an introvert and manic depressive who writes love letters for a living and has recently gone through a divorce with his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara). Theodore is not in the most stable mindset as the movie begins, and as an effort to feel less lonely, he purchases an artificial intelligence who names herself “Samantha” (Scarlett Johanson) to help him with his everyday needs. What goes from there is a grand journey of self-discovery, identity and romance as these two gradually come closer with each other and eventually fall in love.
For those of you who have seen the movie, does that paragraph just about do it justice? I could go deeper into the plot synopsis, but why would I? From just those three sentences, half of you have already decided whether you would like the movie or not. There are, no doubt, some introspective and provocative thinkers out there who will find joy and enchantment with this story, while other viewers will watch it and ask themselves what on earth they just watched.
For me, I went in an open book. I knew that the movie had an opportunity to woo me, that it was a strange and outlandish idea to begin with, but that the idea doesn’t matter as long as it was handled and carried out well. How did the movie do with that?
Eh. I’d rather watch 1 Night In Paris.
Like its central idea, Her is a strange movie, a surreal and against-the-grain picture that challenges a lot of misconceptions about love and relationships. While I like that and think it has a lot of great ideas to offer its viewers, I find them so hard to focus on while we’re watching Joaquin Phoenix having sex with a machine.
Yes, there are sex scenes in the movie, although I hesitate to even call them that. There are two that we actually see, but from their conversations we actually infer that there were plenty more.
The first one isn’t really a sex scene, but more or less a copycat of phone sex with Scarlett Johansson’s voice (which I’ll admit, didn’t bother me that much at all). The second one, however, was out of this world weird, with Samantha hiring a surrogate (prostitute) for Theodore to have pretend sex with. They’re trying to justify it by saying that she isn’t a prostitute and that she’s just trying to be a part of their experience, but that argument is null and void. She’s provided sexual services in exchange for something else. She’s a prostitute.
Don’t get me wrong: there are many emotional moments that the movie handled surprisingly well, and there’s an undeniable sweetness and sentiment to the story that can’t help but be noticed. Despite her being a machine, Samantha has a surprising amount of layers to her, being an in-depth and interesting character and love interest in her own right, while the human characters contribute the more grounded relationships that make more sense than that of Samantha’s (Including a recently-divorced Rooney Mara and Amy Adams, who offer very interesting parallels to Twombly’s exotic love story).
Joaquin Phoenix, however, is the flesh and blood of the film. His performance is nothing less than exemplary, playing this shy introvert so convincingly that its hard to imagine that he at one point portrayed Johnny Cash. His character reminds me of many of cinema’s most memorable introverts, ranging from the autistic-yet-brilliant Raymond Babbit in Rain Man to the hyper-obsessive and socially distant Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, or the paranoid John Forbes Nash Jr. in A Beautiful Mind. All of those movies focused on characters that struggled romantically and socially, and how much they struggled with their identity and being themselves. I love it when movies reach into characters that deep and personally, and if the film focused more on Twobly’s personality rather than that of his love and attraction to his operating system, the movie could have ended up being way more successful.
I can’t help but keep thinking about how small Her’s audience will be. In this day and age, art films are getting harder and harder to advertise and appeal to mainstream moviegoing audiences, and this movie is definitely no exception. I know the film’s premise doesn’t matter as much as how well that premise is handled, but there are some movies that just can’t get away from their bizarre ideas. Case in point: did anyone really expect Quentin Dupieux’s Rubber to be a good movie?
I stress this again: the main character is in love with a computer program. If you can buy that and get over that to enjoy the movie, good for you. But there are no doubt others who will not enjoy this picture, and I can’t help but think that they will be a more sane person because of it.