Monday, December 23, 2013

Spike Jonze's "Her"- Siri as Manic Pixie Dream Girl

There's an old expression that dissecting a joke is like dissecting a frog - you can't accomplish the task without killing it.  And so as I dive in to explore my feelings on Spike Jonze's Her, I fear that the same adage would apply to this film.  It's a fantastic film, one of the best films in what has been a terrific year for film.  The more you examine it, the more you're likely to marvel at how effortlessly it accomplishes some rather profound work.

I'm a fan of Jonze's directorial debut, Being John Malkovich, and though Charlie Kaufman scripted that film there's some value in contrasting it with the Jonze-scripted HerMalkovich is an absurd film played totally straight, and no matter how grounded it feels, it lives in a world rather different from our own.  That was perfect for the tone of that film, and so it's fascinating to see Her tethered to lees ridiculous world.  You won't find a 7 1/2 floor here, to say nothing of portal's into an actor mostly remembered for his role as a jewel thief.

Her could flippantly be described as a story about man who falls in love with his Siri.  That's not totally accurate.  The computer "operating system" Samantha is a few evolutionary steps above Siri, but not to a ridiculous degree.  Our lead character, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), is a lonely introvert who's still not made piece with his separation and impending divorce from his wife.  His day job involves writing romantic letters for other people to give to their loved ones on particular holidays.  He spends all day composing poetic and romantic speeches for those who apparently can't do it themselves and then retires to his empty apartment, where he retreats into video games and phone sex with anonymous strangers.

Every part of Theodore's world has a veneer of phoniness to it, so it's not terribly surprising that he'd bond with his newly purchased O.S. "Samantha."  Speaking with the smooth and alluring voice of Scarlett Johansson, Samantha initially seems designed to be a voice-operated program that merely handles all of Theodore's computer functions like organizing his email, keeping his calendar and so on.  And yet, there's something remarkably human about this artificial intelligence.

Before long, Theodore is having ongoing conversations with her as if she was a real person, and she's taking it upon herself to read his emails and comment upon what's going on in his life.  He opens up to her about his feelings and desires and somewhere along the way, this relationship becomes as real to him as anything else in his life.  This is aided, of course, by Samantha's programming expanding as a result of their prolonged interaction.  She might be little more than a simulation, but feed her enough data and she can reasonably approximate what Theodore needs from human companionship.

Except that it's not real, and little-by-little it dawns on us that we're seeing a canny deconstruction of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. The term apparently traces to critic Nathan Rabin who identifies it as "that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures."  (Prime examples: Garden State, Elizabethtown). 

It's a subversion of the trope because even as we see Theodore coming out of his shell, we're aware of how artificial the relationship is.  Samantha isn't real. She can never be real.  The very nature of her programming would seem to make her Prime Directive to please Theodore.  That she's better at achieving the illusion means nothing.  There's as little substance to this as the phone sex fantasies that Theodore indulges in.  It's a healthy escape, but it's no way to live.

A lesser film might have had Theodore only confront the empty nature of his relationship at the film's climax.  Jonze actually has Theodore open his eyes to this a little more than halfway through the film, and its fascinating to see how that upsets his relationship with Samantha.  And at this point, we've reached the part of the film that I hesitate to examine too deeply.  I think what we take from the final 30 minutes or so of the film is largely going to be informed by our own individual experiences.

A lot of credit for the film's success has to go to Joaquin Phoenix.  He's makes Samantha's interaction so natural that it's easy to forget that most of his scenes have him essentially talking to himself (or likely, talking to an off-screen script supervisor reading Samantha's lines.  It's an even more Herculean task than an actor in a VFX film who is tasked with making his reactions to post-production produced environs believable because Phoenix has to make us feel human emotions for a totally artificial connection.  It's one of the year's best performances while simultaneously being one of its most subtle.

And who would have thought that one of Scarlett Johansson's most memorable and charming roles wouldn't involve her body at all? She's the other half of that connection, and if it wasn't for her interpretation of Samantha making the audience want to believe in this romance, even just a little, the movie would be far less effective.

There's a deluge of truly great films all coming out around the same time this year.  It's going to be really easy to fall behind.  (My personal "To See" list still includes: The Wolf of Wall Street, Inside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska, All is Lost and Dallas Buyers Club, as well as guilty pleasure Anchorman 2.)  As you're setting your viewing priorities, make room in the upper tier for Her. It's one that everyone's going to be talking about at Oscar time.


  1. trolling headline! :)

    (spoiler comment - don't read if you haven't seen the movie)

    I'm glad you see this as a deconstruction, as I did. Samantha's no MPDG; that term has a negative connotation because it describes women who have no identity or arc of their own, but simply exist to intrigue/inspire men and teach men something about themselves. Samantha DOES teach Theodore something, but only because she is, in fact, her own being with her own wants and desires. What I found so genius about HER is that the main question that fuels conflict is: Can Samantha be enough for him? Is this a real relationship? Can they have sex and go on double dates? You dread that of course the answer will be that no, she's not enough - but the twist is that HE ends up not being enough for HER. She can comprehend the universe in a way he'll never be able to, and she seeks out more than he can ever offer.

    RUBY SPARKS, an underrated movie, explores a similar theme, that we have to stop trying to make our significant others only fulfill our needs and not be people of their own... but HER does it all so subtly, and with a genius hint of sci fi. It's a deceptively complex yet simple film.

    1. I think we're largely on the same page here, though I do think it's worth examining the "sex surrogate" scene and applying it to the question of who is not enough for whom. Samantha takes it upon herself to arrange for the surrogate after she perceives a distance between them. The most blunt reading of this scene is that she tries to win him back with sex. But does she get anything out of sex? She's basically trying to use a physical connection to reestablish an emotional one. But for what purpose? Does she really have her own wants and desires, or is it that her programming leads her to this because her very reason for being is to bond with Theodore?

      I think some of this comes down to how "alive" one considers Samantha, though as you point out, she certainly has enough autonomy to leave him in the end.

  2. RUBY SPARKS is a great movie.

    But I would amend the "great year" for film to "passable year," especially in comparison to television, which seems to be entering some kind of unexpected Golden Age.

    Unfortunately, due to a low tolerance for glorification-of-sheer-badness, I don't think I'm going to be able to get into WOLF OF WALL STREET, AMERICAN HUSTLE, et al. INSIDE LEWYN DAVIS, ALL IS LOST and DALLAS BUYERS' CLUB also don't appeal to me, for different reasons -- subject matter and characterization, sadly, being high on the list. I know us screenwriters should be above such things, but...

    I was already major-ly disappointed by STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, THE LONE RANGER, A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD, THIS IS THE END (didn't get past the first half-hour), THE PURGE, and MAN OF STEEL. All this, after the bone-crushingly bad (or was it released last year?) THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. And I'm not looking forward to THOR 2...

    But before I turn into the Grinch-After -Xmas, I'll admit I'm looking forward to NEBRASKA, HER, TRANSCENDENCE, and INTERSTELLAR. And, from 2013 I really liked THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, THE SAPPHIRES, OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN (!), OBLIVION, IRON MAN 3, BEFORE MIDNIGHT, WORLD WAR Z, and others too numerous to mention.

    So all is far from lost....