Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Her: except it’s not about her

So I go to see Spike Jonze’s Her on my own, not quite on Valentine’s Day. If you’ve missed the hype, it’s a sort of conceptual sci-fi romcom about Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), a professional letter writer – hints of Cyrano de Bergerac – who’s struggling to get through a divorce. He installs a new operating system on his phone and begins to fall in love with it.

Well, I say “it” because although he specifically asks for a female voice, it’s just an OS, a disembodied concoction of ones and zeroes. There’s been plenty of critical pondering about what the movie has to say about the Turing test, which posits a computer that can pass as human. But I kept wondering how it would stand up to a different test, the Bechdel, which is passed if two female characters have a conversation on a subject other than a man. There’s no clear answer, because although the OS is given the name Samantha and is voiced by SodaStream-touting sexbomb Scarlett Johansson, the character transcends gender: Theodore could just as easily have chosen to embark on a bromance.

In any case, despite the title, this is really a movie about Theodore. Phoenix gives a very good, understated performance, stepping back from offering a full-on nerdy, otaku stereotype but still miles away from being a conventional masculine protagonist. His combination of moustache and glasses means that in some shots he resembles Tom Selleck, in others he’s more like Johnny Galecki (Leonard from The Big Bang Theory), which pretty much encompasses the gamut of modern-day XY identity.

A few remaining thoughts:
  • In casting Johansson as some kind of unattainable object of love, there’s an inevitable nod to her role in Lost in Translation, directed by Jonze’s then-wife Sofia Coppola and widely believed to contain an unflattering portrait of him in the part of the Johansson character’s husband. That said, the part of Samantha was originally recorded by Samantha Morton but Jonze changed his mind and brought in Johansson to replace her. Sofia Coppola, incidentally, is now married to Thomas Mars, who sings with a band called Phoenix.
  • Is the whole thing just a post-Berners-Lee/Jobs update of the goofy-but-sweet Whoopi Goldberg caper Jumpin’ Jack Flash?
  • Could this have worked with the genders switched, and a meat-and-bones Johansson and/or Morton getting digitally intimate with a transcendent Phoenix? And what tests would it have passed then?

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