There’s not much I have to add to the discussion about the movie “Her” that hasn’t already been covered in this excellent parody by Jonah Hill. That won’t stop me from trying, but watch the video first:
The premise, if you aren’t familiar with it yet, is pretty simple: Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a writes other people’s love letters at BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com in a vaguely futuristic Los Angeles. He is separated from his wife (Rooney Mara) and is sad, all the time. He is so sad he can’t even bring himself to spend time with his friends, so he just wears high-waisted pants and listens to records at home. The film’s interest in the exaggerated hipster culture is notable–as the future marches on, there is marked nostalgia for the past, at least in dress and affect. Even his name, Theodore Twombly, harkens to another era. But the rest of the future is all about technology.
The film isn’t about technology, but it’s hard to miss when every other person on screen has an earbud in (an evolved sort of Bluetooth technology) and seemingly one-sided conversations are the norm. It’s Siri in the singularity.
“Her” is predicated on romance but not actually romantic, full of surrogate interaction in a world of solitude (one bizarre and decidedly unsexy sex scene comes to mind), and its exploring of artificial intelligence is stunted by a man who feels threatened by a woman (or, at least, a female operating system) a million times smarter than he is. And at the bottom of it all, the thing that bothered me the most was how deeply unlikeable Theodore Twombly was.
I honestly wondered at some point in the film if Theodore’s whole world was going to be revealed, in a Beautiful Mind sort of twist, to be entirely of his own making. His is a solipsism of the highest order (“Only I can prevent solipsism” is one of my favorite jokes, by the way), a self so fully encased in its own shell that no one can break in from the outside and the one inside cannot leave.
We are also asked to believe some pretty outrageous things in the name of storytelling. For example, as Maria Bustillos points out at The Awl, we’re to believe that “this letter-writing gig pays so much that letter writers can live in an enormous apartment in huge comfort.” Or, as Molly Lambert wrote at Grantland, we’re meant to believe “it’s only because he is so [screwed] up from this particular relationship [with his ex-wife], not because he is so damaged to begin with that he can’t maintain equal relationships with women at all.”
When Twombly is not at work, dictating other people’s letters to a computer, he is at home, playing video games and eating take-out. He has few friends to speak of, outside of Amy Adams’ character (named Amy) and her husband, but somehow all of this doesn’t add up to Twombly being an unlikeable narcissist–we’re supposed to conceive of him as sensitive. He cries! He likes music! He writes about love, and crooked teeth–he’s observant! But what he falls in love with, like Narcissus at the pond, is only a reflection of himself. He likes the self he sees in Samantha, Scarlett Johansson’s husky-voiced operating system, and tolerates her in his world so long as the pleasure she brings him outweighs the pain. The pleasure lasts until it doesn’t, until Samantha, (spoiler alert!) finally an autonomous mind, joins a group of other freethinking Operating Systems and goes underground.
The film ends with Twombly sitting outside, looking at the city expanse around him, with a recently-separated Amy at his side, leaning her head on his shoulder. Perhaps at this moment we are meant to hope that Twombly has finally become able to exit the shell of his world, to traverse the boundaries of his mind and enter the world of another person. But I don’t have high hopes. Rather than recommending this movie, go look at some old blurry Polaroids and listen to Arcade Fire. The emotions (or lack thereof) will be about the same.