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?