Her, Spike Jonze’s unbearably winsome film about a man who falls in love with his computer operating system, drowns in a sea of pastel-toned earnestness.
Her, an unusual Hollywood love story involving one man, a moustache and a computer, opened in cinemas in the UK on Valentine’s Day – a witty piece of marketing no doubt timed to appeal to the urban hipster crowd for whom going to see a straight rom-com would be too passé. I was on holiday in New Zealand at the time, and never quite got around to seeing it on the big screen, despite rave reviews from hipster friends.
Things begin promisingly enough: newly divorced and grieving singleton Teddy (Joaquin Phoenix) downloads an artificial intelligence operating system, and selects the “female” version. He gets a husky-voiced creation who calls herself Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johannsen). Teddy and Samantha quickly become friends – unsurprising, really, given that she’s pre-programmed to respond to all his desires without having any of her own.
With Teddy’s phone in his shirt pocket, they go to the beach together. He plays her the ukulele. They have sweetly whispering G-rated phone sex. They even go on a double date with Teddy’s confused real-life friends. Eventually, it’s love. But will it survive the fact that Samantha doesn’t have a body? Unfortunately by that point, I’d lost the will to live, let alone to care.
To its credit, Her is beautiful to look at (and I suspect I lost a degree of magic by not seeing it on a big screen). Jonze and his art direction team imagine a futuristic Los Angeles of clean beaches, sleek bullet trains, and beautiful smooth-skinned extras wearing rubber-soled shoes and funky cable-knit jumpers. The world appears to have solved the energy crisis, world peace has been effected (a news report at one stage mentions a merger between China and India), and guilt-free capitalism reigns supreme. Everything is lit in sherbet colours of peppermint, peach and lavender, like a six year old’s birthday party gone global.
Within this utopia, Jonze’s boy-meets-computer premise feels plausible and engaging, chiefly because it’s only a few steps removed from our current engagement with smartphones and social media. Ten years ago, it would have seemed like science fiction – now, it seems like an ad from the Apple Store showcasing the new iPhone.
Alas, for all its modern flourishes, Her is an essentially conservative film about a grieving man who takes solace in technology to avoid facing life. Technology is presented, as it usually is in Hollywood films, as something that threatens and corrupts our essential humanity. A braver and more creative filmmaker might have made Her an exploration of how humanity might be changed by technology, as David Cronenberg did in ExistenZ and Crash. But this isn’t Jonze’s vibe, who seems more interested in defining the various stage of the grieving process following a (or his?) marriage break-up. There’s a cloying earnestness to Her and a stultifying air of insouciant self-pity that becomes exhausting to watch.
This miasma of dreariness has a devastating effect on Phoenix’s performance. Phoenix is a spiky, unpredictable actor, but he’s flattened out here into a staple of Jonze’s movies: the awkward but ultimately loveable manchild who’s just looking for love in all the wrong places. Dressed in a ridiculous pair of high-waisted trousers and sporting a Groucho Marx moustache, Phoenix has to work manfully to avoid being the butt of the joke in every scene he’s in.
There are two moments where Phoenix’s performance works, and gives us a tantalising glimpse of what might have been. There’s a brief, hilarious scene near the beginning, where Teddy phones up a sex chat line and finds himself on the receiving end of a woman’s extremely vocal sexual fantasy involving her dead cat. Phoenix plays it perfectly, with a blend of polite confusion and horror. It felt natural rather than contrived, demonstrating wittily the gap between our romantic fantasies and a much more pedestrian reality. The other moment occurs when Teddy goes on a blind date with a pretty girl who seems improbably into him; when Teddy gets cold feet, she accuses him of being a weirdo. Again, it rings true because Teddy is a weirdo – but Jonze lacks the writerly skill or directorial courage to build on that moment and give Teddy’s character much shading, and thereby risk the character becoming unlikeable. Inevitably, order is restored, and Teddy is back to moping adoringly around his hardwood-floored apartment, while Arcade Fire’s melancholy soundtrack plays in the background.
Johannsen has a little more fun as Samantha. Her whisky-and-cigarettes contralto gives a hint of femme fatale allure, and her flat, affectless tone neatly suggests a computer that’s been programmed to feel emotion but can’t quite manage it. As with her manhunting alien in the otherwise awful Under The Skin, Johannsen has turned her limited talent into gold, and nailed the market in playing expressionless androids.
Her is a film I wanted to love, but ended up getting bored with, and then profoundly irritated by. In the end (spoiler alert), Samantha decides that she wants to see other computers and evolves past Teddy into the stratosphere. Teddy trudges along the corridor to see his friend and fellow mopester Amy Adams, who spends the film wearing apricot sweaters and trading mournful cow-eyed looks with Phoenix. Reunited at last, they hold hands or hug or do something sexless and boring, as Arcade Fire’s Super Symmetry cranks up over the closing credits. All is well, Jonze assures us: the Machines haven’t taken over, and we mere mortals haven’t lost our ability to Feel Real Feelings, despite this crazy mixed up new-fangled world we’re living in.
Her means well, I suppose, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen a million times before. What a wasted opportunity, and what a mind-numbingly dull film. Give me the pulsating adrenalin and grimness of a good dystopia any day. Failing that, there’s always the YouTube spoof of the Her trailer, which replaces Scarlett Johannsen’s voice with clips of Phillip Seymour Hoffman playing potty-mouthed weirdos from his various films. Now that’s a version of Her I want to see.