Spike Jonze’s new film Her is an exquisitely tender paen to fragility and a whisper of a cautionary tale about what can happen to our humanity even when we think we are looking. Set at some point in the not-too-distant-but-just-distant-enough future, the movie is billed as a love story between a man (Joaquin Phoenix) and his operating system (given voice through Scarlett Johansson), yet to describe it in this way is to reduce it to a cartoon we can snicker at and then dismiss.
In fact, the audience was pin-drop quiet, and certainly I have not been able to stop thinking about the story, though less interesting to me is the idea that we are more and more lost to our Machines. I know this to be true the minute I step out on a busy street in Washington, DC, and find nearly every last pedestrian with his or her head bowed to a handheld phone. Or check my rearview mirror at a red light only to see that the person behind me is reading or sending a text message. Or watch with horror as I fill my own lonely evenings with empty Internet surfings launched on my multiple electronic devices.
More compelling are the high-waisted pants worn by Phoenix’s character, Theodore Twombly, which left in me such a mournful impression that I have only to call up the visual image to feel the grief it evokes. Its power, I think, lies in the space between the top of the pants and Theodore’s shoulders — just enough to give the sense that shoulders and waist would nearly meet if life were to bend him one bit further.
The day after I saw Her I found myself thinking about a joke I had not remembered for years, the one that goes like this: A mild-mannered Midwesterner arrived in New York City for a vacation. Somewhat bewildered by it all, he approached a taxi driver with great caution and was heard to ask, “Excuse me, sir. Can you tell me how to get to Times Square, or should I just go f*@! myself?”
Originally from New York, I split my sides when I first heard it; yet, I think I would have found the joke funny no matter my origins. For me it was either laugh — or break.