Her

So what is love, anyway?  I have heard that there is an endorphin-like chemical that’s released into the bloodstream whenever you touch someone.  In many cases it produces a pleasurable sensation that you associate with that person.  So it’s possible that love is an addiction to this chemical.  And yet there has to be more to it, right?  There has to be an intellectual aspect; interests must coincide and psychologies must be compatible.  It all adds up to a complicated amalgam that we will never be able to fully understand, which is probably a good thing.

Her would seem to be a thought experiment along these lines.  The writer and director Spike Jonze could be asking, “What if we took away the physical part?  Would love then be possible?”  I don’t think his answers are very surprising or intriguing.

Theodore, played by Joaquin Phoenix, makes his living writing letters for other people.  He uses his emotional instincts and facility with the language to put into words what other people are feeling.  And he’s really good at it.

A year earlier, he and his wife, Catherine, played by Rooney Mara, split.  There are divorce papers waiting to be signed but he’s reluctant to do it, and at the beginning of the film Theodore is moping around.  Amy, played by Amy Adams, is an old college friend, who tries to cheer him up.

He hears about a sophisticated new operating system and decides to buy it.  It turns out that the new OS is an artificial intelligence.  He asks for a female voice and gets Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson.  She proves to be very helpful and understanding, being able to tell when Theodore is troubled or depressed.  So they develop a relationship, which turns into love.

First of all Spike Jonze has developed an intriguing extrapolation of our own world.  There are lots of scenes where Theodore is walking along the street and everybody is talking either on a cell phone or to their own operating systems, so there is no reason to feel self-conscious about doing the same.  Most people accept that Theodore is having an affair with his operating system.  Jonze has thoroughly thought out his premise.

The disappointing thing is that ironically the story is too conventional.  It is basically the story of a love affair, no different than if Samantha had been a real woman.  I won’t spoil it but the usual things that happen in love affairs, happen here.

At several points in the film, I was reminded of Woody Allen.  It is populated by sophisticated urbanites who are able to precisely articulate their feelings.  It is talky and the plot meanders too much, never really gaining any momentum.  The performances are fine and the film looks nice, but it is way too analytical to actually touch anyone emotionally.

Ultimately, Jonze’s experiment fails because he assumes the result.  With all that philosophy being spouted none of it really addresses the central point of the premise: Can you feel love for someone who doesn’t have a body?  What they do go on about is very mundane stuff about how relationships work or don’t, which, I suppose is interesting but kind of a waste in a high concept film like Her.

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