If Not Her, Then Who?

Her starring Joaquin Phoenix

Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze achieved “watercooler” status again recently with his romantic fable Her—the story of a lovesick divorcé who experiences a very different kind of romance on the rebound. Striking out with real people in the real world, Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix) gives virtual love a spin by purchasing a new computer operating system named Samantha, a next-generation, Siri-like program so advanced in its AI that it could easily be confused for a real person. Except that “she” has no physical body (or even a physical representation)—only a voice, and a “mind.”  

Samantha’s voice belongs to Scarlett Johansson, who has given a much-praised vocal performance in a film that brought many viewers (and writers) to wax philosophical on the nature of modern relationships.

A devout fan of Malkovich, and of Jonze’s inspired comedic performance in Three Kings, I found myself more and more disappointed with Her as it progressed. I did think Jonze ingeniously solved the problem of how skeptics might buy into the basic premise, given how they set up Phoenix’s character and his unique occupation as a professional ghost writer of love letters—but for me, how the film dealt with the expected consequences of the existence of “Samanthas” felt more at odds with believability as the story went on and things began to go wrong for the “couple.”

To be clear: Phoenix is eminently watchable, co-star Amy Adams is typically sublime, and the near-future production design is nothing less than compelling, but ultimately, I took the story to be working mostly on an easy-to-digest allegorical level, playing as a tale meant to teach us how, whether we are dealing with people in the flesh or “people” made up of digital bits, the messy complications of love are not ever to be surmounted. And, as long as that’s the case, you may as well meet them with grace and make the most of the fabulousness, flaws, and frailties of love with other human beings.

Filmmaker Lance Bangs made a short documentary that features provocative musings, analyses, and personal revelations that were the result of the participants having been asked to comment on the nature of “love in the modern age.” Ranging, as discussions of love typically do, from the banal to the profoundly moving, this mini-symposium is easily worth your undivided attention:

If I want a good cry, I might turn to a classic Chaplin (in fact, I just did); If I’m looking for a few tension-relieving laughs, I’ll maybe give Swingers another spin. Just recently I put myself in touch with the existential qualities of love by revisiting Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, and shared these thoughts about it. If you’re gloomy and feel that love is a burdensome thing that can only bring misery and emptiness, and you want to wallow in that darkness by empathizing with a man who suffers a grandly drawn life of desolating woe, I’d recommend cueing up one of my bleakest favorites, Michael Winterbottom’s Jude—but that’s still cruelly out-of-print at the moment.

Turn your thoughts now to movies about love. What film (or films) exemplifies the “nature of love” to you? Romantic, platonic, unrequited, young and impulsive, seasoned or stale, blissful, comic, tragic, or otherwise?


  • Wayne P.

    Of course, George, I am glad the query of your premise piece is not strictly limited to modern movie love as you proved by referencing the great Charlie Chaplin filmography. I would also consider another classic of that same silent era and he would be Lon Chaney Sr. (whom we both like;). I have noted elsewhere here at MU fanfare so many of his superb roles but as Valentines Day is coming up, then what better time to take in a viewing of The Shock, 1923, again? How can you beat a man so in love you actually get the sense he causes an earthquake near the end of the picture just to save the girl…naturally, we dont yet know if she will be ‘his girl’. With Chaney, unrequited love is a dish best served cold…but this time theres hope he will flip the script; so, with no words to speak and only those sad eyes and heart-clutching gestures telling us all we need to know, theres just a chance to win her heart at last!

    • GeorgeDAllen

      The Chaplin I watched was Criterion’s fabulous release of The Gold Rush (snow, anyone?), which includes both Chaplin’s preferred 1942 version (with his narration and music) and a restoration of the original 1925 silent version, with a modified performance of his score —which ends much differently. I vastly prefer the silent version, and feel like Chaplin got it “right” the first time. My favorite part of the film might be the little moment when the Tramp is in the saloon and picks up a torn and discarded picture of Georgia Hale, and then gets really self-conscious and awkward when he sees he’s been spotted by a customer. The clumsy little ballet he does trying to figure out a way to keep the picture without looking like he cares so much about it is enormously touching.

  • Cara

    I’m an incurable romantic so I could name dozens of romantic movies that show numerous sides of love. I’ll choose two overlooked films that are worth seeing, although I’m pretty sure the first one is unavailable anywhere. (It might be on Amazon streaming video.) It’s called Lily in Love and stars Christopher Plummer and Maggie Smith. Maggie and Christopher are married, he an actor, she a playwright. She writes a play but doesn’t want to cast her husband in the lead. He’s miffed that she doesn’t think he can handle the role and sets out to prove her wrong by assuming the persona of the character she’s imagined. Imagine his chagrin and then real anxiety as Maggie appears to be falling in love with the character he’s become. A charming movie and and portrays love in middle age with all its complexities. Plummer and Smith bring to class to everything they do. The second is Eyewitness starring Plummer, Sigourney Weaver and William Hurt. Hurt is not a typical hero or love interest. Weaver is a news personality and believes at first that he’s an obsessed fan. He is an obsessed fan, but he’s also been an eyewitness to violence and wants her to believe his story. Once she begins to believe him, the tidy house of cards that is her life starts to fall about her. It’s a neat little mystery and love story. Mel Gibson did a similar turn later in a movie I forget, but Hurt does it better.

    • Antone

      I think Gibson’s similar film was Conspiracy Theory with Julia Roberts.