When I was little, I had two imaginary friends named Waxy and Jenny. Most people assume I played with Waxy and Jenny when I was lonely and none of my real friends could come over. But this isn’t true. Sometimes I broke away from my real friends to go hang out with Waxy and Jenny. One of my best childhood friends remembers me wandering off into the woods to look for them.
I no longer abandon my real friends to spend time with my imaginary friends. But I often have to repress the urge to check my email or social media when I’m with other people.
And I’m not alone. Whenever I go to a bar or a restaurant, it seems like at least half the people in the room are looking at their phones, checking for messages and updates.
Why do we do this? Is it because we’re addicted to instantaneous feedback and commentary, and fearful of missing something? Because we imagine we’re more important than we are? Or because it’s easy to trick ourselves into believing that the friends who aren’t with us are more interesting than the friends who are?
Whatever the case, the new Spike Jonze movie imagines a world where people don’t just communicate with friends and family through gadgets. They communicate with the gadgets themselves. Why bother the messiness of real-world relationships when you can have a rewarding relationship with a machine that caters and responds to all of your needs?
“Her” is a whimsical and gentle sci-fi/romantic comedy that finds Jonze operating in a slightly more subdued and lower key than his terrific early films, “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation.” Those films had a harder-edge than “Her,” especially “Being John Malkovich,” which suggested that everyday people are so unhappy and desperate they’ll jump at the opportunity to enter a portal to John Malkovich’s brain and experience life as a successful movie star.
“Her” also has an unhappy protagonist: sad-sack Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), who is still struggling to recover from his divorce. When we first meet him, Theodore is having a hard time connecting emotionally with other humans; he spends his time at work, where he writes handwritten letters for other people, playing immersive video games alone in his apartment and hooking up with strangers via a phone sex chatroom. (This sequence, which features voice work from Kristen Wiig, is quite funny.) When he finally works up the energy to go on a date, the evening ends in disaster.
Theodore’s luck begins to turn when he purchases an operating system with artificial intelligence. The OS possesses the voice of Scarlett Johansson, and quickly gets to work organizing his email, asking him questions and making jokes and generally being an all-around good companion. And it isn’t long before Theodore finds himself falling in love with the operating system, known as Samantha.
Somewhat mysteriously, Samantha seems to be falling in love with Theodore, and even developing a consciousness. When Theodore heads off to meet with his ex (Rooney Mara), Samantha expresses jealousy, noting that the ex possesses a body, and she does not.
As Theodore and Samantha, Phoenix and Johansson are wonderful. Johansson’s excellent and expressive voice work makes it easy to understand how Phoenix could fall in love with his operating system, and the film toys with audience expectations in sly ways. For instance, Samantha brings Theodore out of his funk, and he becomes a happy, sociable person again, capable of experiencing joy and excitement. If dating your operating system can lift you out of your depressive haze, how bad can it be?
Of course, the main reason Samantha seems like such a good mate is because she’s programmed to respond to Theodore’s inputs and desires — to anticipate his wants and needs before he does. And when Samantha begins to express wants and needs of her own, the relationship becomes much more challenging.
“Her” is a film of ideas. Some of the ideas are about technology, and what it might mean to live in a world where our interactions are guided and even replaced by technology. In its delightfully quirky way, “Her” exposes yearnings that are very contemporary, and that many people experience, for friendship and love and meaning.
But the film is also an incisive look at the expectations people place on their romantic partners, and how certain people have a difficult time dealing with the messy reality of relationships. There were a few moments when I felt like yelling at Theodore, and telling him to stop moping around and grow up.
I had a few complaints about “Her.” At times, I worried that Theodore was getting a little too pathetic — that the navel-gazing quality of his emotional doldrums was getting to be a bit much. “Don’t they have therapists in the future?” I wondered, because that’s what Theodore really seemed to need — a therapist. But I’m happy to report that the whining, unhappiness and self-absorption on display never gets as suffocating as in Jonze’s previous film, “Where the Wild Things Are.” That film, based on the Maurice Sendak book, made me feel like weeping. “Her,” on the other hand, offers insights that are true-to-life, poignant and occasionally provocative.
Unlike the “Wild Things,” “Her” often made me quite happy. The film’s ending is bittersweet, but optimistic, suggesting the possibility of personal growth and human connection. The message is a simple one, about how we should put down our phones and laptops and experience the world and the people around us. But that doesn’t make it any less worthwhile.
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