The conceit of HER, Spike Jonze’s highly praised film is that as humans become more and more dependent on the increasingly sophisticated programs in their tech devices, the programs become more dependent on the humans as well. It’s a clever concept and would have made an amazing shorter film with its elegiac mood set off by tinkling piano keys and a nuanced performance by Scarlett Johansson’s voice. Its problem is that the loneliness and sadness of Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix, become attenuated to a repetitive series of sad-sack scenes, most of which seem more appropriate for a much younger character. I was reminded of a regular feature on Saturday Night Live years ago called “Deep Thoughts,” a parody of tendentious emotional outpourings.
Phoenix plays a sensitive man whose marriage has dissolved and who lives a mostly solitary life devoid of meaningful contact. Although capable of writing stirring love letters for others as his job entails, he is blocked from reaching that sort of intimacy in his own life. Eventually, he installs an operating system (O.S.) to organize his life, selects a female voice and discovers that she has a personality in addition to her remarkable technological skills. She names herself Samantha and she jokes, flirts, loves and intuits all his moods, freeing him from the self-contained box he was in to a renewed engagement with her and the outside world. We get the point of this very quickly - it’s nicely developed and easy to grasp. But then we watch the same duet play out in too many variations until the eventual reversal occurs, along with the necessary epiphany of the need for human contact. The payoff just isn’t deep enough for the overly long unwinding nor are the insights sufficiently interesting for both the character and the audience.
Ironically, the man seated next to me was busy e-mailing for more than half the movie, providing a real-life counterpart for what was happening on screen. If only all filmmakers adhered to Woody Allen’s strict attention to the length of a movie, we’d all be enriched. The other live female in HER is played by the currently ubiquitous Amy Adams as a married friend who lives in the same building as Twombly and has a parallel experience with her O.S. and her marriage. The issues of excessive control and the need for autonomy wthin a relationship are by now so over-rehearsed in film and tv that they are banal. Sadly, even Samantha begins to sound as self-referential and narcissistic as the humans around her and though she expresses large longings, she seems equally intent on that very narrow frame of self-fulfillment. If this were a send-up of what millenials have programmed into their devices, there would be sharpness to the observation. But the ending is predictable and treacly as Joaquin and Amy scan the heavens but find each other after all.
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