‘Her’ and the depths of loneliness

her-movie-posterOK, let me admit to a couple of things about “Her.”

1. When I first saw a trailer for the movie last year, I was not enthralled. A movie about a lonely guy who falls in love with a disembodied voice representing his computer’s operating system? Really?

2. When the film subsequently was nominated for Best Picture and director Spike Jonze won the 2014 Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, I remained skeptical. There were other Best Picture nominees that had far more appeal to me.

3. I have yet to make use of Siri, the iPhone app that allows users to ask for information and get answers from an intelligent personal assistant that responds with a simulated female voice. For me, there’s something unseemly about engaging with a human surrogate instead of doing the Web research yourself to find what you need.

With all this as backdrop, I finally sat down with Lori last week and watched the movie at home. Several days later, I’m still puzzling over whether to trust my gut — that it was a ridiculous plot — or concede that the film caused me to think more deeply about the themes it presented.

(I suspect many, if not most, readers have already seen the film, so what follows may come across as very old news. Nevertheless…)

Above all, “Her” is a film about loneliness. Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a nerdy introvert who works as a professional writer for a company that composes heartfelt letters for those unable or unwilling to write themselves. He’s on the brink of divorce and totally plugged into the latest technology, so we aren’t surprised when he purchases a talking Operating System to simplify his life.

From his first exchange of “hellos” with the OS, named Samantha and voiced by Scarlett Johansson, he is captivated. Over time, he invests himself emotionally — totally and completely — in this voice that not only responds to but anticipates his needs and moods. At one point, he is distraught to the point of hysteria when she goes offline and he cannot reach her.

Along the way, there are scenes that had me laughing dismissively. One, where Theodore and Samantha are having phone sex (lots of heavy breathing as the screen goes dark). Another, where Theodore and Samantha go on a date (picnic lunch on a blanket and all) with a co-worker and his girlfriend. Imagine Theodore’s mobile device propped up just so, allowing Samantha to “see” the others through the camera’s lens, and three seemingly rational adults conversing with an inanimate object.

Eventually, and perhaps predictably, things go south. Theodore is crushed when Samantha confides that she’s been talking to 8,316 others and has fallen in love with 641 of them. So much for the special relationship.

On the other hand, Theodore comes to his senses. He writes a confessional letter to his ex-wife, accepting responsibility for their having grown apart. He also provides comfort to a good friend he dated briefly in college and who, like him, has become divorced and fallen in love with a male OS voice, only to hit a similar dead end in real life.

Spike Jonze accepts the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

Spike Jonze accepts the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

Is this where we are headed in the near future? Are we so attached to our handheld computers, earbuds and fantasized notions of who resides in our digital dreams that we’ll follow a path leading to self-deception and disconnectedness with the people around us?

Lord help us if that’s the case.

Maybe it was my distaste for that scenario that trumped the quality of the acting and the originality of the plot. Because on Thanksgiving Day, I found myself in a post-dessert discussion with friends and several new acquaintances, including a high school senior. Among those who’d seen it, the consensus seemed to be that it was a provocative and smart film that probably is not far from the truth.

As computer programmers continue to raise their game, the capabilities of artificial intelligence will become more a part of everyday life — even to the point of users developing romantic relationships with Samantha and her ilk.

Did I sell Spike Jonze short? Am I too practical — or too old-school — to recognize a visionary talent? Or was it the Academy Award voters who went off the deep end by honoring a far-fetched script? Viewing the film, I couldn’t help but think of the millions upon millions of less technologically adept people for whom this film would have made utterly no sense.

Ultimately, I’ll go with my gut on this one. I recognize what Jonze was doing in exploring the depths of human loneliness, But, still, the story struck me as patently absurd. A guy falling in love with nothing more a voice? Really?

Photograph: thelowdownny.com


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