(Note: the other possible title for this post was “PDA.” I still don’t know if that was more clever).
Her is kind of a tough sell. Even though Adaptation is one of my favorite movies, and even though it’s been getting nearly unanimous praise, I thought I knew exactly what it was, and I wasn’t missing anything.
The premise — essentially, Man Falls In Love With Siri — seems a little obvious, and it implies exactly where the story’s going to lead. At best, I figured, it’d be a hipper version of Lars and the Real Girl: handsome actor grows a mustache to play a shy, misunderstood loser who gets in an “unconventional” relationship but then we, the audience, find out that we’ve got a lot to learn about how unconventional love really is. I’ve never actually seen Lars and the Real Girl, so there’s a chance I’m completely misjudging an underrated masterpiece, but really, I don’t care. They lost me with the casting; I’m not going to give them a pass for casting Ryan Gosling as socially awkward and unlucky in love any more than I did when they tried to pass Ginnifer Goodwin off as “the plain one.”
Anyway, that’s all irrelevant because I was wrong about Her. It’s absolutely excellent, easily one of the best films I’ve seen in the past few years. All the performances are so perfect that it’s almost immediately forgotten that anyone’s actually performing. It hits exactly the right tone between too self-aware and too maudlin, ending up honest and clever and genuinely moving. It addresses all the themes you’d expect it to — how technology alienates and separates us, how we keep ourselves from truly connecting with each other, what defines us as human, the acknowledgement that whether a relationship is “unconventional” or not really doesn’t matter — and even when it makes them explicit, it makes it explicit in a way that still feels true instead of written. And it takes an unflinching look at all the sadness, awkwardness, and loneliness of modern relationships, but still ultimately joyful.
I said that Inside Llewyn Davis felt like a quieter, more confident take on a lot of the same ideas as were in Barton Fink. In the same way, Her feels like a more confident and more subtle take on some of the ideas in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: relationship drama via modern science fiction. (I know that Eternal Sunshine isn’t a Spike Jonze movie, but there’s still a lot of overlap there). I thought Her didn’t seem as eager to point at the technology and make a distinction between our humanity and our attempts to short-cut it. Instead, the message is much more optimistic: the technology is more established and omnipresent, and it’s another thing that we can abuse or use to distance ourselves, but it doesn’t change who we fundamentally are.
Even if it were just a bit of clever futurism, the movie would’ve been an achievement. There’s a dry sense of dark humor throughout the art direction: future LA doesn’t look like Space: 1999 or Blade Runner, but a Microsoft Store. Lots of wood and cream-colored furniture, with everyone wearing neutral colors and polo shirts. And high-waisted pants made a come-back, which is a brilliant detail. Our contemporary society wasn’t crushed, and it didn’t collapse; it just kind of oozed out in all directions, like a minimalist beige and beechwood stain. LA doesn’t become a gleaming utopian metropolis nor an ugly dystopian nightmare; in fact, all of the architecture is quite pretty. There’s just too much of it, spreading out across the horizon even more than contemporary LA does.
One of the most subtly brilliant scenes has Theodore and Samantha going to the beach together (I’m assuming Santa Monica). It’s presented as all romantic movies do a Day at the Beach, with a beautiful sunset on the ocean and an intimate talk between lovers. But the beach is ridiculously crowded in all directions. And a gigantic power plant lurks in the background, out of focus but impossible to ignore.
A clumsier movie would’ve made a point to show this future LA as oppressively bland, with huge expanses of concrete and throngs of people with the lights in their eyes extinguished by technology. Her makes a point to be more optimistic throughout. The city is filled with people never making eye contact, but it’s more out of distraction than from genuine soullessness. When he’s happy, Theodore makes a point to look at the passersby not just as strangers, but as real people each with his or her own history. In a scene where Theodore trips and falls in a public place, several people nearby stop and check to make sure that he’s okay.
His job is ludicrously callous and impersonal enough to establish itself as satire from the first scene, but there’s always an attempt to show the real emotion and attempts at connection that peek through. (And it’s moving enough to warrant publishing an actual book!) It’s established as a bunch of employees isolated by an open workspace even more impenetrable than Office Space’s gray cubicle walls — I can see you but can never speak to you — but there’s still the possibility to form genuine friendships.
The idea of whether Theo and Samantha have a “real” relationship is a crucial part of the conflict, but it’s not the predictable “you and me against the world” scenario. Some people don’t even give it a second thought, and Amy Adams’s character delivers the earnest “who’s to say what’s real?” speech with the infinitely more clever “Falling in love […] is a socially acceptable form of insanity.” The conflict in the movie is never presented as “this technology is killing us!” but as “this technology exists; now how are we going to exist along with it?” What in the past has taken entire 45-minute episodes of Star Trek to address with a heavy-handed metaphor, Her can ask and answer with a brief dialogue exchange.
One of the best examples of the tone of the entire movie is the video game that Theodore plays at home. He looks ridiculous twiddling his fingers for the future motion controller, until you realize that anyone holding a contemporary controller looks just as ridiculous even without a Kinect. The main character of the game is a cute and impossibly foul-mouthed little blob of an alien. It’s simultaneously an obvious joke, a commentary on technology, and a clever bit of futurism. But Theodore later admits to feeling some compassion for the little guy and wanting to help him get back home. Throughout everything else in the movie, the two constants are empathy and connection.
And okay, sure, they do try to pass off Amy Adams as plain. But I think they earned it. It’s not the old cliche of the “nerd” who just takes off her glasses and lets her hair down and suddenly becomes a supermodel. There’s a real sense that everyone is weary and beaten down by our own fears and self-doubts, but there’s a beautiful person inside us all.