Her (2013); Directed by Spike Jonze

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Having found Spike Jonze’s Her to be boring and empty, I guess I should make it official before someone else does and call the time/date of Me being Dead Inside. Because it’s happened. Others I respect were blown away by it, swept away by it, calling it the Best Movie of the Year, etc. I thought it was pretty to look at (often totally arresting to look at: the landscapes are both familiar and alien, at the same time), and brought up interesting points about consciousness and love and alienation – concepts/themes that are very dear to my heart, but its hooks did not get into me. I did not perceive that there WERE hooks, although I did feel some minor snags here and there (one line in particular about how he is afraid that he has felt all the feelings he is going to feel in his life, that there is nothing new to feel anymore). Minor snags is not what Her is going for, and for me it skipped off the surface of its topic, skipped off and flew into the ether, un-grounded, un-attached, and ultimately un-memorable.

Lovely acting, it LOOKS gorgeous, but the spirit was missing. The aching heart was missing, although the language of the script and the music keeps pointing us in that direction. But for me, there was no there there. Stranger Than Fiction, a film with similar themes of identity, loneliness, and how hopelessly we are trapped in our own set of given circumstances (fictional or real), rocked me to my core and remains a favorite. Her wants to be that. Joaquin Phoenix, excellent as always, is playing that. But Her remains enclosed in its own autumnally-color-coded self-absorption. It does not break free from its own structure. The points are made in the language we hear in the script (often a red flag that something is wrong overall). But the film felt strangely static, silent, with no electrical charge between the various molecules. You may say to me, “But that is the point!” And then I would say back, “Then why the hell should I watch?” Plenty of films address alienation and isolation and loneliness in a way that makes me want to watch, however painful the topic may be. One could even posit that the only question worth asking while we are here on this planet is: “How can I connect with my fellow man? Is it even possible?” So the questions addressed in Her are not new or revelatory, and plenty of other films have done it way better. The only time Her really came to life for me was in the fragmented flashbacks we get, with no dialogue, where we see Phoenix and Rooney Mara having their relationship that has since broken up. These flashbacks are wordless glimpses only, a small flip-book of remembered fights and remembered whimsy and they feel alive and charming and heartbreaking, an impressionistic sketch, where we fill in the blanks. How do you “capture” a relationship without any dialogue? How do you present an entire marriage with no conversation? These moments seen (or, more accurately, glimpsed) are poignant because they feel so real, so fresh, so fully inhabited: these sections look like the way memories actually feel (if you follow me). Memories are not linear, memories are not neat. They are a collage of impressions. Her gets that. But to what end? It just made the rest of the film seem pale and colorless. And the ending was tone-deaf. [SPOILERY COMMENT] Two silhouetted figures staring at a sunrise, together, her head on his shoulder. Really? A joint plunge off the top of that tall building would have been better. Then I would believe that Her had the strength of its convictions.

It kept reminding me of other things. Sometimes this is good, other times not so much because what I was thinking was along the lines of: “God, this was done so much better in …” I kept thinking of Blade Runner, or, more specifically, Philip Dick’s original source novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? There is even a video game Phoenix’s character plays every night which has similarities to the all-encompassing “empathy box” in Dick’s novel, where you live vicariously and practice empathy through a Sisyphean type character struggling up a dirt hill. Dick’s book asks questions like: What is reality? Who can say what is real and what is not real? If I feel something to be true, and if I believe it to be true, and if I can actually touch and hold that thing, then who can tell me that what I perceive is not true?

Her approaches that territory but merely skates around on the pretty and alien surface of it, hoping we will fill in the blanks with our own yearnings and hopefulness. But the film is missing that ephemeral something, that vast and endless center that sets the echoes reverberating. I forgot half of the film 10 minutes after I left the screening.

I loved the trailer for Her, and have loved Spike Jonze’s other stuff. I was looking forward to Her with tremendous anticipation. This seems like a movie I would have thrilled to, responded to. I went in fully expecting to adore it. The theme of Unrequited Love is very personal to me, as well as the themes of isolation and prolonged heartbreak. But Her missed the mark.

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11 Responses to Her (2013); Directed by Spike Jonze

  1. Sheila, this is a great heartfelt review–of, admittedly, a movie I haven’t seen yet–and I hope you don’t get pilloried for going against the grain on this. I’ve got a mess of incoherent notes on my computer about how Spike Jonze is A) one of America’s most innovative filmmakers; and B) not particularly well-suited for the feature film. My understanding is that Her is shot from Jonze’s own screenplay, which is a first for him, at least as a feature. But maybe he’s not much of a writer. He reacts well, extraordinarily so, which is why he’s so gifted in translating a song into visual form, why he works so well in collaboration with musicians, and why he can coax out sensitivity and longing from even the most high-concept, avant-garde ideas. For that reason, I think that only the Kaufman-scripted full-length movies of his truly work–don’t get me started on Where the Wild Things Are–so I’m both excited by and hesitant about Her. But his commercials, music videos, and short films (esp. I’m Still Here) are mesmerizing, absurd, and heartbreaking, and you can see their deep influence across the culture.

    • sheila says:

      I adore Jonze, in general, so I was bummed to not respond to this one. Even just the subject matter seemed like it was “made” for me.

      Your comments about filming his own work are quite interesting. One of the issues here is in the script, which is very literal – No surprise that my favorite parts of the film were the wordless haunting flashbacks with Phoenix and Mara.

      I wonder if Jonze would have cut some of the dialogue if he hadn’t written it. The script says exactly what it means, and it gives the whole thing a curiously flat affect. Human beings rarely say exactly what they mean, especially when they talk about feelings. You know: “But how can I love you when you are not real?” Lines like that. “If I love you, doesn’t that mean you then become real?” I don’t have the script in front of me, so I can’t quote exactly, but the script was too literal – didn’t leave me enough room. No subtext. There was not enough suggestion.

      Whereas something like Stranger Than Fiction (I kept thinking about that film while I watched “Her”) seemed STEEPED in suggestion – so that when Will F. and Maggie G. finally kiss (for example), the breath is knocked out of you because you’ve been waiting for it/aching for it since the moment they met …

      Her lacks that urgency.

      Anyway, would love to hear your thoughts once you have seen it. I didn’t mention my love of Jonze’s other work – but he’s a filmmaker I have always thrilled to and paid attention to. A unique independent guy.

  2. Melissa Sutherland says:

    Sheila, LOVED “Stranger than Fiction”!!! Haven’t thought of it in forever, but want to see it again. This review is really interesting, so personal. And it does go against much of what I have heard. But I’ve so agreed with you in the past, that now I am more curious than ever to see it. Will let you know.

    The Colonial in Keene, NH is showing BLUE/COLOR and I’m seeing it tomorrow. Reread your review. Funny memory: my father never let us go to movies on Sunday when we were kids, and the first time I did (I must have been in my teens) I felt like I was going to go to straight to hell. And now I’m seeing THIS movie on a Sunday. No guilt, though. Looking forward to it. Will let you know how it goes.

    Melissa

    • sheila says:

      hahaha Seeing Blue is the Warmest Color on a Sunday! Wow!!!

      Yes, please come back to discuss. That’s one of my favorite movies of the year – I still have so much else to see before the year ends – but that one really stuck with me. Those actresses!! God, it’s so personal.

      • sheila says:

        and yes, DURING “Her” I found myself yearning for the feeling I got when I first saw “Stranger Than Fiction” – now maybe that is my problem – but we all bring associations/needs to movies we see … and I felt that “Her” wanted to bring up that kind of emotion but it flat out did not. I thought my heart would explode watching Will Ferrell decide whether or not to eat that freshly baked cookie. I seem to remember I wrote a post about it after seeing it. Loved that film so much – and it holds up – I own it and have seen it numerous times since and it always works. Sometimes you never know, with those movies you have such a strong personal reaction to – sometimes they fade when you go back to them at a different time. That one has not!

  3. Brittany says:

    Great to hear what you think about it; I was also anticipating some comparisons between “Her” and “Stranger Than Fiction”. I think in STF, the personal connection that I made with Will Ferrell’s character is really what did it for me, so we’ll see if that holds up. Interestingly, for the past month or so I have been reflecting on a subject similar to the one presented in “Her”. Not sure if you’ve ever delved into comic books or graphic novels (there is some truly fantastic lit out there), but the first issue of a new book called “Alex + Ada” begins to explore some feelings of isolation, technology, guilt and longing in a really compelling way. You should check it out!
    https://www.imagecomics.com/comics/releases/alex-ada-1

    • sheila says:

      Brittany – Thanks for the recommendation and the link! The drawings look amazing – I know that there is a lot of great literature going on out there in the graphic world, I just know nothing about it – Bookslut (do you read her?) often highlights/reviews new graphic novels she likes, but other than Persepolis (and a few others) I just don’t know anything about it. I have no excuse, just busy reading other things!

      But that Alex and Ada looks interesting – I can see why it would be called to mind in re: Her and its topics/themes. I think Jonze was really on the surface of this one, he didn’t delve into it, it just didn’t click for me. I will be eager to hear what you think of it.

      It left me totally cold, but I am clearly in the minority!!

      • Brittany says:

        I have indeed perused the bookslut site, but not recently… I’ll have to go check it out for new recommendations. And I can definitely relate to having too many things to read, and all at once – there’s never enough time!

        I didn’t actually start reading graphic novels until grad school. It was a welcome change from the dense papers that I read every day for class and now I can’t stop! It’s been sort of a science fiction gateway drug for me… I’ve never been one for books with a lot of “action”, at least until recently. If you decide to pick up the habit, I absolutely have to recommend my all-time favorite series Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan.

        http://www.amazon.com/The-Last-Man-Vol-Unmanned/dp/1563899809

  4. brendan says:

    I haven’t seen it yet. The first time I saw the preview I got super excited and then every time I saw it after that my enthusiasm waned. I know this is going to be a weird link but I kept thinking to the wacky “issue” films like “Reefer Madness” where some basic premise has to be accepted in order for the film to work at all. Also, WRITING or THINKING about the questions raised by falling in love with an operating system is interesting so the FILM has a kind of moral high ground that you have to succumb to in order to approach it.

  5. brendan says:

    MUST STOP ALL CAPPING.

    • sheila says:

      Yes, you really must.

      You make an interesting point, Bren – and I think that’s why I kept yearning for something like Blade Runner (or Philip Dick’s book) – which also had a high concept (and similar concept) but was presented with such noir blunt realism that it’s one of the deepest profoundest books I’ve ever read. And the movie gets at the same thing, although not quite as devastatingly close to the bone. Her wants to be that.

      My friend Keith wrote a really interesting review of it – where he gets into some of the particulars – and he articulated some of my other issues with it (how the women are portrayed, and also the voiceover aspect of it). I’ll put the link here later when I’m not so tired.

      But let me know what you think when you see it.

      Joaquin is great, and his scenes with Amy Adams are wonderful – they create a relationship that feels lived-in and real but the whole thing was off for me.

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