Her movie review: manic pixel dream girl

MaryAnn’s quick take: It’s the rise of the machines as romantic dramedy, and the Singularity as romantic tragedy. It’s the nicest, gentlest sci-fi horror film ever.
I’m “biast” (pro): love Spike Jonze’s movies
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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It’s a familiar story of self-discovery and romance. Theodore is a lonely writer who can’t come to terms with his divorce — he keeps putting off signing the papers — and he’s just not interested in dating again. And then he meets Samantha. Their relationship is strictly platonic at first, but she’s smart, funny, considerate, attuned to his needs… and he falls for her, hard. She has no physical presence, of course, just a sexy Scarlett Johansson voice emanating from the smartphone-slash-supercomputer he carries around (as everyone else does in Theodore’s near-future Los Angeles). Sure, she’s an AI, but you can’t have everything.

The Movies have given us too many manic pixie dream girls, those adorably kooky perfect women whose only narrative job is to lead troubled, insecure men on a path to mature adult relationships before skipping off into the sunset. We’re meant to see those tales as sweet and idealistic. While Samantha may not be the first manic pixel dream girl (Al Pacino fell in love with a CGI “actress” in S1m0ne back in 2002), Her is something new nevertheless: a soothing, gentle science-fiction horror movie. It’s the rise of the machines as romantic dramedy, and the Singularity (the oft-speculated-upon future moment when computer intelligence bypasses humanity’s) as romantic tragedy. It’s The Terminator writ nice. And it’s all the fault of humanity as represented by one troubled, insecure man who prefers undemanding fantasy women over the real thing.

Writer-director Spike Jonze likes to play with our cinematic expectations — see also Adaptation and Being John Malkovich, for starters — so he doesn’t drop us into full-blown future-horror, though he give us plenty of hints of the quiet awfulness of Theodore’s world, which isn’t too far from our own, right from the beginning. Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix: Reservation Road, Walk the Line) loves his work, at a company called BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, and he is very good at. He is an electronic Cyrano, crafting lovely “heartfelt” missives for all occasions, from bereavement to wedding anniversaries… except unlike with Cyrano, it’s no secret to the recipient that those letters were not written by the purported sender. (Theodore comments offhandedly that in the case of one couple, he’s been writing “their” letters to each other for years.) Outsourcing your emotions is just one more service in the future service economy, and apparently one that no one gives any more thought to than they would to sending their laundry out to be done.

There’s something ineffably sad about the future Theodore lives in. His world is only the teensiest bit askew from ours, emotionally and culturally as well as visually. The fashion of everyone’s clothing and of their homes just the tiniest bit off-kilter from our own. It’s futuristic and dorky at the same time… as is the feeling that a need, and even a desire, to accommodate our fellow human beings is right on the edge of starting to seem old-fashioned. How can there be horror in the reality of Theodore’s romantic life, in which real women are too “weird” and too difficult in their own needs, when this is the baseline reality of an entire genre of (supposedly) romantic movies? At first it’s funny, when solitary yet horny Theodore calls a sex chat line one evening and has a somewhat bizarre encounter with the voice of Kristen Wiig (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues), but later it’s just pathetic, when the “demands” of the blind date he is set up with (Olivia Wilde: Rush, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone) are so simple and unexacting — “Please don’t fuck me and then never call me again” — and yet totally confound him and turn him off.

Enter Samantha (Johansson: Marvel’s The Avengers, We Bought a Zoo). She is a brand-new operating system for his home computer/smartphone, and she is literally programmed to create a personality for herself that is perfect for him, so that she can best organize his life and please him in every way: to anticipate his needs, to listen to all his complaints and sympathize totally, to be his friend and companion. She never has a bad word to say about him, or to him. What could be better? Except that now he doesn’t need to learn how to deal with real, flawed, idiosyncratic women… and though Jonze maintains an intimate focus on Theodore and his own small circle of friends — including flesh-and-blood couple Paul and Amy (Chris Pratt [Movie 43, Zero Dark Thirty] and Amy Adams [American Hustle, Man of Steel]) and his ex, Catherine (Rooney Mara: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Social Network) — intimations that Theodore is far from the only man or woman falling in love with their own AIs begin to seep in. We see that new services are popping up to meet some of the unexpected needs of these new relationships, and even Theodore can’t help but start to see how inhuman, and inhumane, this brave new world is becoming.

Any suggestion that Her is offered as unironically romantic soon disappear, though that soft modesty remains. Science fiction of genuine ideas is rare enough on film, but science fiction with such a terrible underlying motif is rarer still. Could ordinary and usually benign human failings lead to the end of interpersonally connected humanity? And would we welcome it and think it a paradise?

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Tue, Jan 07, 2014 10:09am

Of course you will. It will be designed specifically by expert psychologists to cause you to do so. (And to make money, of course.)

Thanks for this. I’ve been getting mixed messages about this one, but I think that at least some reviewers haven’t noticed the horror aspect at all.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  RogerBW
Tue, Jan 07, 2014 11:58am

I think no one else is seeing this as horror. Everyone seems to think it’s charming and romantic. It isn’t.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Tue, Jan 07, 2014 12:23pm

At least there’s something interesting to it if the possibility is there! It’s been coming across from other people as very bland and safe…

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Tue, Jan 07, 2014 1:07pm

I saw it as a combination of romance and satire, which is equally rare. But the characters seemed to take for granted that they had no privacy, which was certainly frightening.

I think it’s one of the best films of the year.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Sat, Jan 25, 2014 2:18am

I found the near future a little creepy, but I related to the clothing a lot more than the clothing you typically see on women in movies set in southern California… ;-> While I agree “blind date” was pretty weird, Amy was a very fully realized character, and I kept hoping Theodore would wind up with her. That was at least hinted at by the ending; I had the feeling the ending would be extremely bleak, but, instead it was a little hopeful.

Rod Ribeiro
Rod Ribeiro
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Sun, Mar 16, 2014 3:44am

I did come out of that movie really depressed.

Tue, Jan 07, 2014 3:36pm

Huh. The only part that came across to me in the trailer was that she was an AI. I probably should have given Spike Jonez some credit, but “you’re in love with your computer?!” seemed like not nearly enough of a new idea for someone who has read a little sci-fi. It was just the trailer, though. Hm.

Wed, Jan 08, 2014 9:32pm

You’d mentioned the Pacino flick S1M0NE (which I haven’t seen), but this sounds more like the 1984 film Electric Dreams, in which a shy man’s computer falls in love with the woman he’s been pursuing himself (Virginia Madsen) and begins to complicate things. I haven’t seen it since it was on cable in the 80s, so I can no longer attest to its quality.

Sun, Jan 19, 2014 6:31am

I agree with your assessment of this having a horrific undertone regarding how we relate to each other in the present/near future, but I’m curious about your reading of the date with Olivia Wilde’s character.

At that point in the story, Theodore is already falling in love with Samantha through their conversations. Are you of the opinion that it would have been preferable for Theodore to sleep with his blind date rather than to walk away from her, even in light of his growing feelings for Samantha? When his blind date asks him not to (as other men have done) sleep with her and then not call, Theodore seems to realize that his feelings for this woman don’t move beyond the physical — so it seems better for him to leave her than to anger her further by continuing in a relationship he’s not feeling as strongly as the one he is building with Samantha. I guess I’m confused by your opinion of what he should have done, given that the emotions between Samantha and Theodore seem, for better or worse, about as real as he’s felt in a long time.

I loved the film, incidentally, and have been thinking about it all day.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  David
Sun, Jan 19, 2014 11:43pm

If his feelings for the blind date are nothing but physical, he sure does a good job of faking a more all-around sort of connection during their date.

My reading is as I mentioned in the review: he was really into her as long as she was totally captivated by him talking about the video game he was playing, but as soon as she gave him the smallest indication that she was a person with her own needs, he was turned off. And this is true of Samantha as well: as soon as she starts expressing interest in things beyond him, he can’t deal with it.

Tue, Jan 21, 2014 9:24am

Yet another movie that depicts women as cartoony caricatures suitable for the mind of an adolescent boy. The request made by the woman he went on a blind date with, that made him suddenly end it with her, was perfectly reasonable (& a typical one), but made in an odd, hysterical way. She seemed very suddenly loony enough to make me expect it was a plot point, but same thing with the sudden outpour of hysterical tears from the sex surrogate. They’re just American movie women — they’re loony, unreasonable, demanding, and prone to exhibiting bouts of mysterious & inexplicable emotional upheavals. I would hope men who see these movies see through these depictions, and don’t believe that this us how women are. I give this movie credit for its depiction of relentless, epic, grueling loneliness, and its dystopic vision.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Squeekmouse
Tue, Jan 21, 2014 5:10pm

What was “loony” or “hysterical” about Wilde’s request?

Fri, Jan 24, 2014 1:13pm

Funny alternate commentary on this — check out the alt unreality of this version of the trailer: http://www.towleroad.com/2014/01/what-if-the-movie-her-was-him.html

Tue, May 27, 2014 6:35am

Any suggestion that Her is offered as unironically romantic soon disappear, though that soft modesty remains.

I dunno. The thing about Samantha is that she isn’t a fantasy woman. She’s a person (albeit without a body) who has real emotional needs, and who becomes better and better about expressing them. Her needs force Theodore to grow as a human being.

Incidentally, did you notice how beautiful and ginormous Theodore’s apartment was? I think I might be able to accept a society where human beings are increasingly disconnected from one another if I could score a place like that on a copywriter’s salary. :D

Liz Winsor
Liz Winsor
Mon, Jul 07, 2014 1:58am

Was I the only one who knew from the moment she first appeared in the elevator that Amy was the warm-fleshed reward he’d finally get once he’d learned his inevitable life-lesson?

I found the movie nauseating when I think I was meant to find it funny (those ZANY broads!!) and I had the distinct feeling that Theo’s flaccid solipsism was supposed to get me lactating with maternal concern for his extraordinary sensitivity. I was less horrified than creeped out and annoyed by the film, while many people I know speak of it in hushed reverent tones as “incredibly beautiful”, “sweet” and “romantic”. That might be the most horrifying part.

Sun, Aug 16, 2020 4:06pm

It’s really a reflection on how society has become, men are being vilified in commercials as violent thugs now gillete company is only one example of shaming all men for the actions of a few.

Movies now too. Modern day feminism is wrecking relationships, even careers based on filmsy, or even non existant evidence, no surprises if men will turn from such open hostility into the arms of AI.