Below is a review I wrote of Spike Jonze’s “Her.” I saw it pretty late in the game, so the various venues to which I submitted it for publication had all pretty well covered the damn thing. I thought my perspective was unique in that I didn’t spew my khakis over how brilliant the writing was, but nobody seemed to care. Since I’ve decided to return to blogosphere (I hope to actually keep consistent here), I’ll post the review below.
REVIEW OF “HER”
The world that Spike Jonze creates in his new film Her is neither dystopian future nor is it necessarily utopian. It’s just slightly better and more advanced seeming. There are still regular cars, fat people, and a fashion sense pretty much identical to the present. The computers are nicer and everyone, even writers, have gorgeous high-rise apartments in new constructions. If anything, Apple’s moved forward in their world domination and the economy has improved by long, long strides.
If you’ve heard of this film, there’s probably no reason to summarize, the concept being as simple as it gets. The quick and dirty of it is that a man falls in love with the sultry-voiced human-ish consciousness of his personal assistant/cell phone-computer operating system named Samantha.
I’ve heard glowing reviews wafting through the air of Brooklyn about how daring and original the concept is, but that’s just not true.
Any number of sci-fi novels and movies have presented relationships between humans and A.I., and I’m sure someone more well versed in the genre could pinpoint a dozen A.I. love stories without taking a breath.
The original take that Jonze offers is the near-futurity of the whole thing, and maybe the fact that such a strange, paraphilic relationship quickly becomes socially acceptable—like as soon as the software hits the market people accept these relationships as normal—and that’s where the originality kind of stops. Storywise, it’s the exact same concept as Lars & the Real Girl: a taboo relationship based on fantasy, except in Lars it was just a body and in Her it’s just a mind.
Where Jonze really just sidesteps that whole “daring” quality everyone claims for him was when he, as writer/director/god-like figure, forbade Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix as our lonely, mildly pathetic main character) from being with Samantha (Scarlett Johansson as a bodiless A.I. OS who I’d still do some murdering to get down with).
NB: I would also like to state that as pleasant as ScarJo’s smoky voice is in my ear, it’s also extremely familiar, and therefore inextricable from the actual person, so the effect of casting her as the voice of a bodiless operating system was self-contradictory. The result is imagining the body of Scarlett Johansson on the other end of Twombly’s smartphone instead of presenting someone the audience could fall in love with in the same way the main character does, i.e. without any preconception of what she looks like.
About three fourths of the way through, Theodore’s best friend Amy (Amy Adams playing the cool best friend whose friendship will inevitably lapse, post-Fin, into girlfriend status, it’s strongly implied) totally condones and even lionizes Theodore’s relationship with Samantha, because life is short and we have to grab at any loose strand of joy we can hold on to. This is when I thought: Holy shit, he’s doing it.
There’s a fake cardinal rule among screenwriting gurus that a summarized concept should convey the entire movie in a sentence or at most two, and Her obeys this wholeheartedly, which ruins it.
Doomed-from-the-start love stories should defy our expectations, and the only way to do that is to either un-doom them or to doom them in a way we’d never see coming, ever.
I’ll be talking a lot about Breaking Bad, probably for the rest of my life, but the major lesson any and all writers—not just action, high-stakes scenario writers—should take from Vince Gilligan and Company is to undercut your setups in every way possible: that is, give us a setup that seems really familiar—a savvy audience fills in the blanks waaaayyy before you get to the punchline—and don’t just go in the opposite direction (in the world of setup/payoff, heads is the same as tails, obverses are Jekyll and Hyde, and neither are surprising because we’re always aware of them), but complicate it endlessly, swerve off the road, and subvert and defy our expectations until we’re just about to crack under the pressure.
Granted, Her isn’t as high-stakes as Breaking Bad, nor is it meant to be. Jonze is a deft hand here at fusing Hollywood Movie Magic and a Euro-brand Slow Cinema. But at least undercut some basic philosophical assumptions!
Her was supposed to unsettle our understanding of love, friendship, family, and all other connections between consciousnesses, but in the end it offered an unchallenging story, a predictable ending, and an unabashed, unqualified, unearned optimism. Spike Jonze tips his hand to reveal he’s just as conservative as any old Spielberg.
Spoiler time in case you haven’t seen it and don’t know what I’m talking about: Theodore and Samantha don’t live happily ever after together. Surprise!
But goodness, it’s a good-looking movie. The triumph of the film is that it delivers a singular aesthetic bliss, a world removed from our own in distinct ways, but not inaccessible, making just watching it kind of like entering a mirage and being somewhere you might prefer over actual reality, a bliss the main character loses and can never get back. We can always hit play again.