I've been looking forward to seeing "Her" for months now, and I came into this movie truly expecting something soulful, romantic, and inspiring. Instead I found myself crushingly bored, checking my watch every minute, and truly suffering as few movies manage. Every moment the movie continued, I wanted to not be watching it. Around the hour mark, when I started truly hoping the movie was nearly over but in fact was less than half way through the movie, I started naming Byzantine Emperors: Justinian the Great, Phocas (the really not great at all), Romanos Lekapenos, Basil the Bulgar-Slayer, Michael the Drunkard, Constantine the Dung-Named, etc. etc. Its truly the sign of an awful movie experience when suddenly you're reminiscing about dead empires, rather than really drinking in the fictional world of entertainment that the filmmakers have created for you. Say what you want about the Eastern Roman Empire, it was never boring, battling Arabs, getting sacked by Franks, saving the True Cross from the Persian grasp. Where is a movie about all that? Instead we have this, "Her". They should have called this movie "Her, the Dung-Named".
The concept here is fascinating, at least. "Her" is a movie depicting about fifteen years into our future where artificial intelligence has grown to the point that not only can you communicate directly with your computer, but now its developed its own personality, voice, and soul. The hero, Theodore*, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is a sad divorced extremely lonely man who buys a new Operating System with a personality-creating algorithm within. This system creates Samantha**, voiced by Scalett Johansson, a witty and warm digital woman who brightened Theodore's terrible existence, and eventually they fall in love. So its a love story mixed in with the recurring science fiction theme of artificial humanity, its very exciting stuff. Though if you want to be crude, you can describe this plot as "man falls in love with Siri". So there was a lot of potential, even to make a weird comedy, unfortunately, the movie that resulted was slow, plodding, and generally just miserable.
Spike Jonze as a director has been somebody I've respected for a very long time. He seems to have his own energy and his own beat, which is important for a filmmaker. He took "Where the Wild Things Are" and transformed it from a bedtime story into a disturbing musing on the nature of childhood and the difficulties of parenthood. So I figured if anybody could handle a movie like this and give it an edge beyond merely the "man falls in love with Siri" sensationalism, it would be Jonze. Instead I think he brought only his worst aspects as a filmmaker, creating a mopey and simply unbearable movie.
The problem begins with the art design. Most of the movie is shown in a washed-out brown pallet - Jonze used a similar one in "Where the Wild Things Are", to better effect. The characters are mostly dressed in dull, surprisingly ancient clothing. Joaquin Phoenix dresses like my great-grandfather, his waistline is above his nipples, and he seriously need an intervention when it comes to plaid. Meanwhile most of the architecture looks like it came right out of an Andrew Niccol movie, intensely modernistic hallways, as if the future is nothing but empty modern art museums. The walls are drab, the colors are flat, the clothing is retro in all the worst ways, the movie is lifeless.
It doesn't help that Theodore as a lead, is just as drab as his surroundings. Joaquin Phoenix can sometimes bring a good performance, this was not one of the times. He's soft-spoken, cowardly, constantly cowed and terrified by every woman he comes close to romantically. Meanwhile he's endlessly unsatisfied, often for no good reason, when the movie world has granted him an angelic woman who could understand and appreciate everything about him. I have no idea why Samantha puts up with this prick, beyond the fact that she's his property and there's probably some very unromantic reason written deep into her code. Theodore and Samantha spend the entire movie having either insufferable conversations where they love each other, and then far more insufferable conversations where they start to pull apart distantly, and then still more insufferable conversations where they're supposed to be cute. I am sorry, Spike Jonze and the entire culture of film study, but I could not stand these two, or really anybody in this movie. Theodore is a boring, boring man. His mopey depression is entirely not earned, it has none of the depth of Llewyn Davis' journey in yesterday's movie. This guy is not sensitive and misunderstood, he's a cunt. A borderline personality basket case that will never be happy and can never appreciate anything.
On a more positive note, the movie does try its best to keep the concept of - let's just go out and say it - a man fucking his computer, and keep it serious and respectful, and ultimately just as real and meaningful as any other romance. Theodore is not a fool being tricked by fancy programming that has done an excellent job of simulating a person, Samantha is as real and fleshed-out as anybody in this movie. (Unfortunately, this being "Her", that doesn't mean much.) There is a sex scene and its handled as well as I guess it could have been, with the screen blackened, rather than watching Joaquin Phoenix jerk it to the sounds of a moaning computer. The heroes of this movie play advanced video games where apparently in the future the Microsoft Kinect actually works, but it never once blames their anti-social traits on their connection to technology. Technology is just a part of life, as it is now. We don't need to go around blaming our ills on machines, at least not until the robots start nuking our cities or cheating on us. Of course, the movie eventually ends with Samantha - I am not joking - ascending into a greater plane of existence, which would be a profound conversation about the ultimate journey of humanity, but Jonze explains exactly none of that. We're just left with Joaquin Phoenix, as always, staring mournfully, this time with a flesh-and-blood Amy Adams at his shoulder.
What's more disappointing is that Samantha really isn't all that interesting either. She's basically just a human with an exceptionally fast processing speed. How exactly is her mind different from our own? She's a digital construct, made of extremely amazing and fantastic mathematics, unlike us fleshy creatures whose brains were developed by successive additions upon simpler instinctual minds. It isn't just a bio-chemical difference, Samantha was simply born as a fully formed person. She's not terrified of becoming her mother, she doesn't have self-esteem issues because she didn't have friends in Kindergarten, she never built a subconscious fetish for choking because her big brother choked her once when they were fighting when they were three. And maybe that's the point here, Spike Jonze created Samantha to be a superior creatures beyond our Earthly repression and creepy animal urges. But it also means Samantha isn't terribly interesting, and neither is this movie.
I don't feel like this movie had particularly malevolent intentions, Spike Jonze took this material seriously. But he took it far too seriously, to the point that the relationship it represents just isn't any fun. I'm not a man who easily falls in love, but when I do, I'm usually having a good time (until the endings), mostly because I know my love affair isn't the most important goddamn thing in the universe. We're having fun. There are more colors in the world, not just brown, orange, and the ruddy color of Joaquin Phoenix's terrible mustache. I really hope my conversations aren't vapid idiocy and some truly awful puns, maybe they are. Maybe that's the point: Spike Jonze is trying to prove to humanity here that love is stupid and lame. "Her" is, if anything, a good argument to stop trying and to be lonely forever.
Or how about this: stop moping. Let's see Joaquin Phoenix's enjoy five minutes of the Battle of Manzikert where the Byzantine armies were thrashed by the Seljuk Turks, allowing Anatolia, the heartland of the Empire, to be conquered and then assimilated into the Turkish yoke. Let him suffer Seljuk arrows while the core of the Greek armies were swallowed whole in a single rout. Then he'll know he has nothing to bitch about.
So yeah. "Her" sucked so much ass that it has digested the entire fecal matter of FIVE major East Coast metropolitan areas. And you know what? I'm not a moron for thinking that. Its the truth. If you honestly enjoyed the story Spike Jonze put together here, power to you, you are a far more tolerant person than I. But when I see shit, I call it shit, and I don't care how many critics gave it a positive review.
* Theodore was the name of two Emperors of the Nicaean Empire, which was a Byzantine successor state the sprung up following the fall of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade - which didn't quite fight for Christianity as much as destroy most of the surviving fragments of Antiquity, doing terrible damage to Western Civilization. Maybe "Her" is somehow a resounding echo of that terrible blow to our shared world heritage. More likely I'm just being dramatic. Anyway, Nicaea was able to retake Constantinople eventually and the Byzantine/Roman Empire was born again... until some Turks destroyed it again a few centuries later.
** 'Samantha' is not the name of any Roman, Greek, or Byzantine emperor or major figure. The name is only a few centuries old.