Hollywood

Her: A Two-Hour Put-On?

January 15, 2014

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Over the generations, this state of affairs has generated numerous novels and countless screenplays lambasting stars as egomaniacal airheads, moguls as megalomaniacal vulgarians, and ordinary Angelenos as starstruck halfwits. No city in history has been more thoroughly and expertly mocked. The talents who have gleefully joined in include Evelyn Waugh, Billy Wilder, Steve Martin, and Larry David.

If the writers someday win, however, instead of Angelenos using future advances in artificial intelligence and robotics to create lascivious sexbots who look like Scarlett Johansson, we”€™ll restrict ourselves to designing operating system avatars that sound like Scarlett Johansson.

They”€™ll infatuate their owners solely by the power of the spoken word”€”lots and lots of spoken words, like in one of those French movies where a couple philosophizes about their relationship for two hours. In this better tomorrow, entire movies will be made in which we will never see Scarlett Johansson, we will just hear her as we watch Joaquin Phoenix’s face react to the miracle of her emerging cybernetic selfhood.

Wouldn”€™t that be awesome?

Personally, I think Scarlett Johansson should be seen but not heard.

Admittedly, her voice acting has much improved since she became a star at 18 in Lost in Translation, but her Her role was actually created by the plainer-looking English actress Samantha Morton. At the last moment, with the film of Phoenix’s reaction shots already in the can, Johansson was brought in to redub the soundtrack to the timings laid down by Morton. (Whether Johansson’s casting is a private joke Jonze aimed at his ex-wife is not for me to say.)

And I have the nagging suspicion that Her is not really the profound relationship movie that critics unanimously think it is. Perhaps instead it’s more an intentionally dweeby satire on its niche audience, an expensive prank on the Stuff White People Like crowd.

Nobody else seems to suspect that, but Her is a lot funnier when you assume it’s a hoax, a more artful put-on than, say, Phoenix’s phony 2010 movie I”€™m Still Here about his claiming to retire from acting to become a rapper.

After all, Spike himself is not always possessed of the delicate sensibilities displayed in Her. He started out videoing his fellow skateboarders and BMX bikers, then broke through with the Beastie Boys”€™ Sabotage MTV video parodying Starsky and Hutch. Jonze is one of the three creators of the long-running Jackass series of gonzo stunts and low-class pranks. Is Her a high-class prank?

Her derives from Jonze’s 2010 short I”€™m Here about a sad robot who wears high-water pants. The depressed automaton has to take the bus to his bad job reshelving library books because robots aren”€™t allowed to drive in Los Angeles. One day at the bus stop he sees a sexy girl robot behind the wheel of a forbidden car. “€œYou aren”€™t allowed to drive. You know what happens when you drive,”€ an angry old lady human shouts at her. Our boy robot hero falls in love with the rebellious robotrix, but her constant auto accidents require so much maintenance from him that he winds up a disembodied head.

Viewed from a structuralist standpoint, Her just flips a few switches from I”€™m Here: The hero is happy taking mass transit in LA to his lovely literary job, and it’s his girlfriend who is disembodied.

Sure, deep down Spike, who loves crashes, explosions, and ruses, probably feels that being an incorporeal public transportation user in LA is a dismal way to go through life.

But Jonze takes pride in his ability to manipulate his audience’s emotions. Thus, Her and I”€™m Here hearken back to Spike’s seminal 2002 IKEA commercial Lamp in which a battered old desk lamp is replaced by a gleaming new one. The sad-looking piece of junk is put out on the curb, where we can just tell the poor thing feels lonely and rejected because of its defeated, hunched-over posture, the moody lighting, and the melancholic music. Then a Swedish man walks up and says to the camera, “€œMany of you feel bad for this lamp. That is because you crazy! It has no feelings, and the new one is much better.”€

Her is like a two-hour version of that IKEA spot about how directors can screw with audiences”€™ emotions, just with the explanatory punch line left off.

If Spike has indeed intended to pull a fast one on the critics, he’s succeeded, winning 93% positive reviews from Rotten Tomatoes while also alienating the masses: Her earned only $5 million in its first weekend of national release. But Her was produced by Megan Ellison, the daughter of the world’s fifth richest man, so the lack of excitement among the paying public is hardly a major concern during awards season.

 

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