I Can’t Decide Whether ‘Her’ Is a Touching or Manipulative Portrait of Male Loneliness

Spike Jonze’s Her is about a very lonely man who logs onto the Internet and finds, buried in one particular algorithm of artificial intelligence, the woman of his dreams. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a little defensive about that, of course. Though “Samantha” (Scarlett Johansson’s utterly recognizable voice) herself says she’s adapting to every new experience he gives her, he tells friends that it’s not like “Samantha” does only what he says. And his creator, Jonze, seems to agree. Throughout the film we’re given indications that “Samantha”  has free will, and it doesn’t spoil much if I tell you that in the end she makes a kind of ultimate exercise of it.

But it’s a symptom of the kind of film this is that as the credits rolled, I suddenly wondered if even “Samantha’s” last choice could have been said to be part of the program. The film clearly hasn’t considered that possibility; it encourages you to believe that Theodore is right to anthropomorphize this disembodied and idealized voice. Or, if not quite “right,” at least genuine in his belief that what he has encountered is not just some particularly complicated lines of code. Both Theodore and I don’t know what makes a person a “real” person, after all, though it does seem like a body should be a prerequisite. And in his state of abject loneliness, after a divorce he is reluctant to consummate with his signature on the papers, he’s prepared to give a “person” like “Samantha” the benefit of the doubt.

It is hard, of course, not to relate to that profound loneliness. Anyone who’s been single for any period of time as an adult will recognize something of Theodore’s plight. The hope that one day you will be somewhat less than totally fucking alone fades in a very specific way when you are not in a relationship. Even a “bad” relationship provides a nominal attachment to some other person you can use to stave off the encroaching dark. Because the people who say you are better off without a toxic attachment are always totally right until it’s three in the morning and you cannot sleep and there is no one to talk to.

In order to make you sympathize with Theodore on that point, the camera spends a lot of time — too much, at moments — focused on Phoenix’s face, on his profile before empty windows, on the way his earpiece makes him look like he’s babbling to himself all the way home. There is a point at which all the raw emotionalism of that stepped over the line to manipulation for me. It’s a subjective line, yes. But by the time I watched Theodore’s eyes tear for the 15th time, I felt not so much an eye-roll coming on as a small twinge of exhaustion. I get it, I get it, life is lonely and sad, why are you plunging me into the pit of despair again and again? I mean, I know the answer: the answer is that I am supposed to have very little critical distance from Theodore as a person. When a date tells him, “You’re a creepy guy,” I am supposed to feel wounded on his behalf even if she is, on some level, right.

There are more than a few shots here, in fact, that at least indirectly evoke that other sometimes-too-much paean to urban loneliness, Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. It is perhaps unintentional, all these people feeling bereft in office towers accidental cousins to each other. But it starts to make things interesting when you remind yourself that this film bears a more direct kind of relationship to Coppola; Jonze wrote the script, and out here in the real world he is divorced from that person. Autobiographical readings have their limits, and no one can blame Jonze for not wanting to discuss his actual life with the press. But the pre-release profiles at Vulture and the New York Times alluded to the connection and then dropped it in a way that suggests Jonze knows he is making some reference here. At least, that’s my reading of the oblique remarks.

The problem with Her, though, is not that it might be autobiographical. It’s that it’s mostly a hodgepodge of references, all gesture, and rarely scratches the surface of the deep emotions it purports to be about. We are, for example, given brief glimpses into the marriage which has rendered Theodore so bereft, but they are so short and ephemeral that it’s hard to call this a serious treatment of the experience of divorce. Theodore tells “Samantha” at some point that he finds the appeal of marriage in the ideal of “sharing your life with somebody,” but it’s hard to say why he’d chosen Catherine (Rooney Mara) for that task. And it is curious to be oblique about that subject, because in a very basic way this is just a movie about what attracts you to someone else, and how they’ll end up repelling you in the end. Compare this as a breakup film to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, for example, and you’ll see that Her is comparatively terrified to be honest about love. Everything that in Eternal Sunshine is crappy lighting and ugly crying is, in Her, warmly lit and silent argument.

And that highly aestheticized treatment of reality isn’t a problem just because it’s too pretty to look at. It also seems to miss the boat on the gender politics of the whole. I would not, of course, contend that either men or women have a monopoly on the idealization of love or marriage, of course. In fact, perhaps more films like this might democratize the (false) notion that women are more sentimental than men about this stuff. But there has been a particular history to the deployment of the idealized female in film which Jonze makes just about zero attempt to engage here. Possibly, if I asked him, he would say that this isn’t a film about idealized women per se. Which is perhaps an admirable and noble goal of his, to stay above that particularly ugly tradition.

But I wonder, if I sat Johansson — and Samantha Morton, who had the role before her and was deemed in some way insufficient to this task — down over drinks sometime, totally off the record, what she might have to say about that.