Friday, January 10, 2014

Thoughts on "Her": She Sells Sanctuary, But There's Something's Missing

When it comes to love, I'm a combination pragmatist. I'm a cynic, a realist and a true believer in one cold, hard fact: What you see is what you get. And if I can't see it, what's the point of getting with it? It's one thing to trust in a God that remains a mystery, but I'm too suspicious by nature, too much of a doubting Thomas to engage in a faith-based romance. Seeing is believing, and it's paramount to falling in love.

Perhaps that's why I was more moved by the lead performances in Her -- the ones given by Joaquin Phoenix's face and Scarlett Johannson's voice -- than I was invested in its central romance. As tech-age love stories go, this one's been told before, not only in the 1984 film Electric Dreams, but the following year in "Computer Love," an R&B-funk classic by Zapp. Kate Bush also explored the man-and-computer love connection four years after that, on a track called "Deeper Understanding" from her 1989 album The Sensual World.



Bush's prescient song, in particular, was a poignant and persuasive musical romance when I first laid ears on it 25 years ago. Back then, home computers were still relatively foreign objects, mysterious enough to make the possibility of one being a viable stand-in for human emotion seem somewhat plausible, but in 2014, I know too much, about life, about love, about computers. It's harder to root for for a couple that's one-half machine over the course of two hours when you're too busy asking "Why? How? Huh?"

And therein lay the biggest roadblock to my getting lost in love while watching Her. If only there had been some great adventure, or at the very least, an actual storyline, to distract me from the unfathomability of love between a living, breathing soul and an operating system named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johannson). If you're able to suspend your disbelief, though, and just go with it, Theodore, the living breathing soul brought to vivid yet world-weary life by Joaquin Phoenix, and Samantha are just another case of opposites (extreme opposites) attracting in a romantic "comedy." I use the quotation marks because despite the label that the Hollywood Foreign Press has slapped on Her by nominating it in the Golden Globes' comedy categories, there's really nothing ha-ha funny about it.

If you're even less inclined to think of Her as "romantic," consider this: Most romantic comedies/dramas aren't actually about love at all. Love might be the backdrop, or perhaps the holy grail, but usually the story revolves around some adventure that the couple embarks on which leads to love, or it's about some act of subterfuge that's committed in the name of love, or as a conduit to love. Laughter ensues. Love walks in.

In the dramatic realm, there's generally some kind of conflict, something threatening to pull a pair apart, or a barrier to be overcome on the obstacle course of love. In both, love is in the air, but it remains a pleasure principle, a supporting character rather than a lead, something we the viewers take for granted that we never have to actually take too much into consideration until the credits roll and the leads lean if for a kiss.

Her, on the other hand, is all about love and the unexpected places in which we might find it, universal themes that never get old. It's the story that comes up a little short: a man starts dating his computer. That's how Catherine (Rooney Mara), the ex-wife-to-be of Theodore, might describe it. "Now he's madly in love with his laptop," she tells a third party after signing their divorce papers and learning of her replacement. (Technically, it's his mobile device.) She's at once incredulous and appalled (and probably relieved that she got out when she did), and despite the unlikability of the character (Mara excels at playing distant and dissatisfied, and Catherine is almost the antithesis of the warm, honey-voiced Samantha), I was sort of right there with her.

It's probably what any sane person would ask. After all, who goes around falling in love with someone they can't see and touch? That's why long-distance relationships rarely work. Even on dating websites, nothing usually happens until photos are exchanged. But once they're exchanged, how do we know that we're actually dealing with the person whose photos we've approved of? Unless you're the type of person who insists on webcam or Skype video, you and your new online companion might actually be no different from Theodore and Samantha, except your virtual significant other probably wouldn't be able to check your email, proofread your letters and send your work to publishers, landing you a sweet book deal.

Her takes modern love and applies it to modern society in general. We're such slaves to technology, particularly computers in various forms, that as it brings people closer together, it also isolates them so that everyone is farther apart. Los Angeles in Her could be some dystopian alternate universe in which all of the architecture and interior design is cold, angular and sterile, and people are so thoroughly disengaged from one another, existing in their own small cubicles, that they don't even bother to write their own letters to each other anymore. (In this alternate universe, apparently, letter-writing is back in.)

That's where Theodore comes in. He writes all the things that his clients can't say to their loved ones. He's a great communicator. If only he could communicate for himself. He's the kind of guy who can talk for strangers and bond with a digital being but has trouble connecting to the people in his own life. He neglects to respond to his friends' messages, and despite the love he had for Catherine -- the love he clearly still feels for her -- he boxed himself off from her.

He may have been there physically, but he was somewhere else mentally. "You always wanted to have a wife without the challenges of having to deal with anything real," she tells him after his big OS-love revelation. (In Theodore's defense, I can relate to that personality paradox, for I, too, am a loner romantic who would rather fall asleep with arms around me and wake up alone.)

In a way, Samantha represents almost the reverse, Theodore's ideal relationship. He can be with her, enjoy her company without having to be with her. He's a sweet, sensitive soul, but he doesn't really know how to be in a relationship. In one telling moment, after Theodore and Samantha have virtual sex for the first time (a fantastic scene that occupies some rarefied space between absurd and totally hot), he tells her he's not in any emotional position to start anything serious right now.

Seriously? It's Theodore's most guy-like moment in the entire film, but Phoenix keeps his motivations and intentions just vague enough to make us wonder if it's a standard brush off, or if he's protecting himself because he knows that love with an operating system could never work long-term. It's like they both spend the entire film waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Meanwhile, nothing much happens. We get long takes of dialogue during which the camera is fixed on Phoenix's face, which, to the film's benefit, tells a far more engrossing story than many plots do. In the absence of any real action, we can sit back and admire director Spike Jonze's screenplay and beautiful direction, the hyper-stylized set design and the performances of the main cast, which includes Amy Adams (of course) as Theodore's friend and confidante Amy, the real live woman who might actually be perfect for him. (The two Amys get one of the film's best lines: "I think anyone who falls in love is a freak. It's kind of a socially accepted form of insanity.")

Her made me think, about human nature, about technology, about love, about Joaquin Phoenix's face, but the actual sequence of events unfolding onscreen engaged me mainly in spurts. My mind kept wandering, wondering what it would be like to fall for an OS of my own, someone for whom I could create whatever mental image suits me, someone who could keep me company without invading my private personal space, someone who could love my work enough to get my own book published.

It sounds like the ideal set-up, but ultimately, my Sam probably would be a place holder until a real man comes along. I felt a similar sense of detachment during Her. It's brilliantly directed and acted, a film I couldn't help but admire, but without any real story to pull me into the strange relationship between Theodore and Samantha, I never got lost in it the way I wanted to.

That Her works at all is a testament to the power of Joaquin Phoenix's acting and Scarlett Johannson's voice. I've been a huge fan of Phoenix's work since To Die For. He's an actor who can stun you with his cruelty (as Commodus in Gladiator), seduce you with his soulfulness (as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line), and wow you with his capacity for nailing both in one character (as Freddie Quell in The Master). His boss in Her (Chris Pratt) makes a casual observation that perfectly captures what sets Phoenix apart from all of the other Hollywood actors in his age group: "You are part man and part woman, like there's an inner part that's woman." He's Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift rolled into one.

I have no idea why he hasn't been part of the Best Actor Oscar discussion for Her because he deserves to be. Luckily for him, though, the odds of his scoring a surprise nomination are a lot better than the odds of finding forever love with a 641-timing computer operating system named Samantha who sounds like Scarlett Johannson.
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