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.