Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Her

Spoilers!

How can any romantic relationship hope to remain stable when its 2 participants are inherently dynamic? Two continually evolving individuals, who, as someone states in the new film HER, learn and change with each new experience? We pledge to a certain hopeful degree of longevity, ostensibly for life when we propose marriage, but are we too complicated for that? Our own worst enemies? We like to think that despite our differences and tendencies to grow in different directions that we can hold it together and stay that way. Some, though, feel that they have reached another plane or dimension of growth that is no longer compatible with their mate and move on.  I've been careful not to use words that imply that both parties in our hypothetical relationship are people, humans. Writer/director Spike Jonze's film is set in a near future Los Angeles (largely Asian and filled with architecture that does indeed echo BLADE RUNNER) where artificial intelligence has evolved to allow users to have meaningful discourse with their operating systems. Even have romantic ties to them.

This does not seem completely implausible to me. It may well already be possible. But for the OS to reciprocate those feelings? To progress far beyond how they were programmed? Artificial Intelligence's name indicates that the decisions and actions of a computer are entirely preprogrammed, a composite of the designers' IQs and assorted quirks. As the programmer learns new things, he/she makes the creation more sophisticated. But what if the author is no longer needed for advancement?

This question will loom largely long after HER's credits roll, at least if you're the sort of moviegoer who appreciates a film that dares to even attempt to have Ideas. You don't expect a disposable entertainment from Jonze, whose previous films similarly twisted viewers' brains into pretzels. The earlier films were smug, brilliant, coldly clever gems (BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and ADAPTATION). WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE was less chilly, more hopeful. With HER, a heart is revealed beneath the cerebral and in this case, the tech. Maybe because Jonze wrote this himself, rather than with his frequent collaborator Charlie Kaufman?

Joaquin Phoenix is Theodore Twombly, a 30ish introvert whose job it is to articulate the emotions those who hire him can't in a series of love letters. He's quite gifted at this, earning longtime loyalty from clients and respect from his boss. Of course, he is not as well versed in his own personal life; he is soon to be divorced from another writer, his lifelong crush, Catherine (Rooney Mara). Blind dates don't go well. Perhaps his ex is correct, that he is unable to handle real emotions in a real relationship.

Theodore purchases an OS that he decides to use with a female identity - Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Her voice is much more appealing than that flat male drone who sorts his e-mail. There is real character, even flirtation, in her pitch. Like a good friend. To his amusement, Samantha and he begin to chat about more than credit card bills. She encourages him to go on dates. Their bond grows deeper which each session, which begins each time he pops in an earpiece. They fall in love. He is not nagged that his partner lives in his desktop. I found their courtship similar to the regular long distance variety, a voice from a faraway place.

Samantha is not a mere pleasure model who acquiesces to her user's whims.  She develops emotions and thoughts. She recognizes his tone when he's angry or down. They fight. They even have, er, phone sex (in a blacked out scene that will make some viewers uncomfortable, others embarrassed, and will have still others on the floor laughing). In another scene that could've in lesser hands been unrelievedly creepy, Samantha suggests a surrogate woman to act out their encounters. It is very uncomfortable to watch, but expresses volumes about the difficulties of both in person and virtual relationships in ways that could take days to fully think over. I was struck with the notion that perhaps Samantha was like a deity, attempting to take human form to reach her beloved in some tangible manner.

Theodore also has a dear friend named Amy (Amy Adams), a software developer (her current project: a game that follows a "supermom" who racks up points as she feeds her children in record time and one ups other parents with her skills) he's known since college, someone he dated "for a few minutes" but in an instant knew it wasn't to be. Amy's husband leaves her midway through the movie, causing her not only to reassess, but yes, grow. Realize how she has compromised herself. Do we do that in relationships? Of course, to make things work requires dying to ourselves, sacrifice. But how much is acceptable has much to do with your point of view and also your faith (or lack of).

On that point, HER again has many obvious and not so theological parallels, particularly in the closing scenes, when Samantha reveals that she speaks with thousands of users, and is in love with 600 of them. An operating system can of course calculate things in a nanosecond, and be omnipotent, but what to make of one that espouses love to you in such an individual way, only to reveal she is that to many (but not all). Perhaps I'm reaching, but viewers with devotion to God will certainly see the metaphors. Samantha is always there (except once) when Theodore puts in his earpiece. She watches through his phone's camera eye. The twist may be that Samantha is not God, but Theodore is, depending on whether you believe God created Man or vice versa.

But HER has so many other dimensions, and most viewers will discern the bittersweet ruminations on something as old as mankind: the difficulty of maintaining a loving, nurturing union. Jonze's writing is so swift, so heady. The behavior of his characters never pigeon holes them, always allows a deeper layer, even if the scenarios (and the film's ultimate resolution) seem familiar and even predictable. When Theodore and Samantha have arguments, there are indications that the male and female roles have reversed - the human is so hard to understand; the OS is trying to use logic to follow.

There is much to admire in HER. The obvious genius of the screenplay. The heartfelt performances. Arcade Fire's score. Big and small symbolic imagery (drifting smoke, swooping electronic billboard owls).  I enjoyed the evocations of other films like LARS AND THE REAL GIRL, a film that also attempted to examine the complications of relationships (albeit a bit more one-sided,  yet with the live character creating drama that might've naturally occurred with 2 beings). It seems possible that HER is Jonze's response to his ex-wife's (Sophia Coppola) somewhat autobiographical LOST IN TRANSLATION. The obvious connection being Ms. Johansson, who delivers one of the best vocal performances ever. Theodore and Catherine may well represent Spike and Sophia, two relentlessly creative people with complexities to match.

For me, HER worked equally well emotionally and intellectually. The concept does, at first, seem potentially ridiculous and creepy. Certainly sad, from beginning to end.  I was oddly reminded, perhaps appropriately enough, of A.I., a film many dismissed as Spielberg's dilution of Kubrick's original thoughts. The final minutes of A.I. are the source of disgust for many with its unabashed sentiment. Spielberg insists that these scenes were Mr. Kubrick's idea. Either way, they worked for me. In HER, as the final scene deliberately plays, I felt something similar. The philosophy and pathos merged in a quiet, strangely beautiful moment.

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