Let’s start with the obvious. Any movie directed by or written and directed by Spike Jonze leaps into our collective cinematic consciousness with a quiet or not-so-quiet challenge to how we see, well, everything. He creates with a different set of artistic tools and expectations, always incorporating the magical and the liminal while taking a look at what is dark in how we treat each other.
Her, focused so much on the interior life of Theodore Twombley (Joaquin Phoenix), contains both magic and irony. The movie plays with us. From ghost writers of personal letters to OS (operating systems) that have the powers of gods, to the intrusion of happy flashbacks of love lost, the movie swirls in and out of the minute and intimate into the metaphysical, but always in a context, that, much like the 13 1/2 floor in Being John Malkovich, doesn’t quite exist in our real world. I love magical realism, and the sense of realities and possibilities that are so close to our real world they seem to have a separate and palpable existence. I’ve long admired Spike Jonze’s work just for his ability to make otherness a way to reflect realities we keep missing, though they are right in front of us. He’s a brilliant and truly original filmmaker. And Her is, in many ways, absolutely excellent.
If I may digress for a moment–and of course I can because I’m the god of this blog–I’d like to say that the year Being John Malkovich played in theatres (1999), was, like this year, a year of excellent movies. American Beauty, Cider House Rules, The Insider, Magnolia, Boys Don’t Cry…the list goes on. I made sure to see them all–and, while I liked the deeper emotional cut of American Beauty and Cider House Rules, I couldn’t ignore the fact that Being John Malkovich defined its own category. The film approached story and meaning in a completely new way. I paid more attention to Charlie Kaufman than to Spike Jonze at the time, but only a very particular director could have filmed that script, and Jonze was it.
So, Her. Is. Excellent. Joaquim Phoenix delivers an incredibly nuanced and sensitive performance; Amy Adams’ vulnerability and authenticity match his, and Scarlet Johannsen (who I’ve loved since Manny and Lo–still worth seeing) makes Samantha, played only in voiceover, come fully alive in many dimensions. The movie’s action doesn’t move in big climactic events, but in the revelation of impediments and challenges to intimacy and relationship. The only flaw to this comes from the need for one character to change enough for the impediments to keep arising after each work-through…and it can feel a little contrived. That said, I’m always relieved when screenplays leave formula behind in any way at all–and this did.
I also liked the way the flashbacks to Theodore’s marriage were shot. Jonze holds the audience tight to Theodore’s point-of-view, and the flashbacks fall, one after another, in exactly the same way real memories appear in the mind–that’s a difficult simulation to accomplish and most movies don’t do it well at all.
But. Yes, you know the but is coming. My problem with the movie is, ironically, with its world view. This movie aims to explore intimacy within non-intimacy. There’s an inherent problem in my opinion: new relationships just aren’t that intimate. All you’re doing, in the first year or two, is figuring out if you can actually reach each other. I mean, sure, sometimes you know right away that you’re going to stick, but you still have to test the hypothesis, and even if you know you’re likely to stick, you’re still going to end up having to work through how to partner, how to resolve conflicts, and what to do when you trigger the hell out of each other. A movie that explores early relationships doesn’t get at the essential personal and spiritual challenges of intimacy that come later. I didn’t like that the film didn’t seem to know this. Also, while the shots of people ignoring each other and totally involved with their phones disturbed in all the right ways, I’m not sure that the movie ultimately said about technology replacing human contact–especially because the OS, Samantha, seemed so real. That theme, essential to the film, kept getting lost for me.
Then, and this is a spoiler, I don’t really believe that the spiritual evolution of any being, even one without a body, capable of holding 8,000 simultaneous conversations, means leaving all connections behind to go be in universal space. I mean, maybe after I die and I enter universal space I’ll change my opinion, but by then I will no longer be able to blog. (Or who knows…my opinions may break all barriers.) I believe that human evolution, which is an evolution of consciousness, requires leaning into the difficulties of intimacy and loving. We like to think that monks are the ones who evolve, living in silence, praying or meditating all the time, attempting to enter universal space while on this planet. That seems to be the belief implicit in the movie’s understanding of evolution. But I’m a woman, and a feminist, and I believe (and I find in the writings of contemporary Buddhist spiritual leaders) that it’s easy to believe in your own evolution after meditating for 6 months in silence, but just go back and spend a holiday with your family and presto change-o; you’re as f-ed up as everyone else.
So, the ending of the movie left me dissatisfied. I mean, I get it, the humans end up with each other, with no real idea of how to connect, but I wanted more. I thought that Spike Jonze opened up some great questions in a completely original way, but I didn’t buy his final answer as a real answer–not about intimacy, not about technology as its replacement.
But get this–the questions are so worth it that this might be my favorite movie of the season. Enough Said might also be my favorite movie of the season, for it’s terribly intimate realism. Every other movie I liked asked good questions. Forgiveness or accountability–Philomena. Ambition or a right-sized life–American Hustle. I am, it seems, relentlessly dissatisfied with the answers…but I’m also completely happy to go along for the ride, if the story is told well. Her is told well. As are all the others I mentioned. It’s been a good season. (And 12 Years a Slave is the only movie left to review.)
PS–The idea of a consciousness that is more than an operating system becoming a kind of god isn’t new. Orson Scott Card’s Jane in the Ender series is exactly the same kind of being. Only she REALLY wants a body and eventually gets one.