The writer-director Spike Jonze made a television commercial in 2002 about a lamp that gets thrown away when a new one is purchased. The commercial turns the lamp into a tragic character, deposited on the curb in the rain, sitting forlornly outside the window of its former owner.
Then a man with a Swedish accent appears. “Many of you feel bad for this lamp,” he says. “That is because you are crazy. It has no feelings, and the new one is much better.” At which point the Ikea logo appears, and the commercial cuts off. This minute-long work is a peerless critical commentary on cinematic trickery—a masterly exposé of the way moviemakers use music and light and shadow and editing to induce emotions in us.
Now Jonze has written and directed an Oscar-nominated movie called Her, in which a man named Ted falls for his computer’s and smartphone’s operating system, called Samantha. In one sense, Her is the perfect sequel to the lamp commercial, because Jonze uses every bit of cinematic trickery he knows to make you believe the man is in love with the phone and the phone is in love with him. Many people are entranced by Her; they have told me they found it moving and were fascinated by its portrait of a world only a few years from now in which people are more attached to intelligent machines than to others.
Jonze makes ruthless and effective use of music, camera angles, lens flares, romantic settings, and quiet conversation—all evoking the styles of older, utterly delirious romantic movies like A Man and a Woman and Love Story, not to mention television commercials for diamonds and cars and hotels and cruise ships.
The oddity, though, is that this time Jonze seems to mean it. He’s not sending up romantic film clichés the way he sent up film language in the lamp commercial. Her is not a parody, and it never shifts tone. This really is a movie about a man and a phone falling in love, about how love is wonderful but fleeting, and about how lovers grow and change and pull away from one another. Thematically, it’s Annie Hall in the future, without jokes—if Annie Hall were only Scarlett Johansson’s disembodied voice and Woody Allen were a mustachioed, withdrawn child-man played by the surpassingly strange Joaquin Phoenix.
Skilled though Jonze is at evoking the outbreak of love, you’re still just watching Joaquin Phoenix dancing around by himself and having conversations with nobody. And we are meant to take it straight, to go with it, to accept his love for this disembodied voice, in part because we are supposed to like Phoenix’s character and feel empathy for him.
Phoenix tries to play a sweet and repressed fellow who is grieving over his divorce, but the actor cannot really hide the go-for-broke intensity he showed in his best-known parts as the parricidal Roman in Gladiator and the shell-shocked deviant in The Master. He is supposed to be an everyman for the digital age, but due to Phoenix’s limitations, he seems more like a lunatic desperately trying to mask his psychopathy.
Now, as for the operating system: Scarlett Johannson has an attractive voice, and it is certainly true that people can and do fall in love with others they have never met but have heard on the phone, or with whom they have had correspondence. We are supposed to take it that Samantha is a full-blown character with her own wants and needs and interests and desires. But she’s just a plot device, loving when Jonze needs her to be loving, distant when Jonze needs her to be distant, and developing extracurricular interests when he wants the plot to go that way.
You keep waiting for Her to develop a satiric punch, to say something about people and technology and soullessness and the like, but instead what you get is Spike Jonze furiously trying to keep you in the thrall of his peculiar obsession. The movie just goes on and on and on, with the emo music and the lens flares. Meanwhile, conveniently, there’s the charming and winsome Amy Adams, who lives in an apartment in the same building as Phoenix, and who breaks up with her husband just as Phoenix broke up with his wife.
In the end, the story of this tiresome and pointless conceit is this: “He was a man who had to have sex with his cellphone in order to find the girl next door.” I feel like the man at the end of Jonze’s Ikea commercial: “You were probably upset when Ted and Samantha broke up. That is because you are crazy.”
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.