You’re the most important person in the world, aren’t you? I know I am. Given the nature of the human condition – the ravenous “I” at the center of any individual’s perception – the survival of romantic love, with its inherently self-sacrificing nature, has begun to seem downright miraculous in our increasingly narcissistic 21st century culture. We’re living in a moment where the notion of “service” is more and more about how we can get the world to more efficiently work for us, and less about serving the needs of others, so the idea that true love means putting someone else’s needs before our own is beginning to feel both truly heroic and even a little quaint.
Doesn’t it make sense, then, that a near-future homo sapien, with his increasingly entitled need to be taken care of amidst an exploded population and a growing isolation, would find the seemingly perfect lover in an artificial intelligence that’s created and programmed to be all about him? And if that enables said human to (seemingly) sidestep the messy painful complications that come within the matrix of a traditional human-on-human love affair, is this necessarily a bad thing?
That Spike Jonze’s magical existential mystery trip Her has got me thinking about the nature of romance in the modern age is indicative of the kind of depth charge resonances the film can set off in a viewer. This love story between a man and his operating system, an instant classic, pushes you into a profound contemplation of both the now and the next, and I’m only fixating on the rom-com nature of the questions it raises because, look what blog you’re reading.
“Falling in love is a crazy thing to do,” notes a character in Her, “It’s like a socially acceptable form of insanity.” Yes, and there’s more in Jonze’s philosophy to be pored over by those with scientific, semiotic, and even architectural interests (e.g. the Los Angeles of Her’s future, as critic Manohla Dargis has noted, is vertical and rail-driven). The issues involved in our relationship with technology get a provocative workout here, and everybody wins: the little alien avatar who stars in the film’s video game sequences is hilarious, while the humans (e.g. a truly wild Olivia Wilde, and Amy Adams, virtually unrecognizable next to her turn in American Hustle) are just as compelling.
The best films transcend genre, because the power of their storytellers’ imaginative capacities dissolve the notion that any story must be all one thing. Defining The Godfather as a gangster movie is reductive, just as calling Psycho a love story (it’s “Mom” tattooed on a particularly bloody heart) is disingenuous. Her, a sci-fi romantic dramedy comedy horror social satire movie, is all these things and simply original.
As a love story, Her provides us with a unique perspective on the stages of a romantic attachment. Artificial intelligence Samantha, the self-named O.S. (Operating System) voiced by Scarlett Johansson in a remarkable, marvelously nuanced performance, grows and develops over the course of the story, and as her involvement with Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) deepens, the classic phases of a love affair are freshly enacted in bold relief.
The story’s arc echoes that of Annie Hall (and Pygmalion before it): be careful what you wish for when you try to mold a lover’s mind and bring her up to speed. Even as she’s handicapped by such obvious disadvantages as not having a body, Samantha’s lightning fast learning curve gives her an unfair advantage over her hapless human lover, and… It’s hard to talk about the movie without giving too much away, so I won’t say more, nor spill, as many reviewers have, some of Her’s best lines, riffs, gags, and insights. I’ll just say, see it.
Jonze’s work with Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malcovich, Adaptation) has clearly rubbed off on him (as has, in subtler ways, his time with former wife Sofia Coppola, whose Lost in Translation this film recalls at moments in its air of wistful melancholy), but he’s wholly come into his own with this beautifully crafted piece of work. It’s quirky in the best ways - sad, funny, often bravely teetering on a tightrope line between pathos and absurdity – and its minor flaws pale next to its considerable achievement. In the future, many of 2013’s highly touted Oscar-season movies may fade from our collective memory, but I know I’m never going to forget Her.