In Russian, the word “pochemuchka” is used to describe someone who asks too many questions. I can’t think of an English equivalent, but I kept searching for one as I sat through Spike Jonze’s “Her.” Set in Los Angeles sometime in the future, the film is at its core a love story — one between a guy (Joaquin Phoenix) and his inquisitive operating system (voiced by a girl, Scarlett Johansson).
Jonze’s concept, this re-imagination of the “modern romance,” is absurd, the stuff that sounds like a poorly written pulp science fiction paperback. Viewers might describe “Her” as a film that captures the “zeitgeist,” with its thought-provoking focus on technology and our relationship to it — but this description is too easy and too empty to convey anything, really. The movie may take place in the future, but Jonze has gone great lengths to make everything just recognizable enough. Phoenix, donning horn-rimmed glasses and too-high pants, looks more like a Williamsburg-dwelling dad than the Terminator.
In its script, too, “Her” is romantic and raw, not cold and mechanical. It seems to be the year of the anti-hero in film — a cranky musician, a ruthless Wall Street banker, a pudgy combed-over con artist — and “Her” is the exception. Theodore Twombley (Phoenix) is likeable. As his co-worker describes, he’s “part man and part woman,” and, if a little mopey, still moral. He’s sad and lonely, but that’s because humans are, by default, sad and lonely.
The beauty of Jonze’s film lies in its subversion of man’s expected relationship to machine. Where technology usually suppresses our human instincts, here it reveals them. Theo loves Samantha, his operating system, and all the darker questions — How can he love a machine? Why can’t he connect with other humans? — are secondary to the sincerity of this love.
At one point, Amy Adams, who plays an old (human) friend of Theo’s, remarks, “Falling in love is a crazy thing to do. It’s like a socially acceptable form of insanity.” If this sounds prosaic, I think that’s the point. Of course love is absurd! So why should its absurdity hinge on physical form? That’s what Jonze seems to be getting at, and that’s where he succeeds — in recreating the organic chemistry of a committed couple.
But Samantha’s physicality can only be imagined by Johansson’s husky voice. When I get nervous, I blush. This was damning as a kid, most especially when, in the second grade, I was in love with Ben Nichols and he asked me why my cheeks were red. Of course, this wouldn’t be a problem for Samantha. If you are without a body, what you have left is language. Between raspy giggles and mild mockery, Theo and Samantha fall in love with each other’s words.
The implication is not that language is enough, but that language is everything: that what we say and how we say it is somehow the real key to falling in love. This is terrifying — more terrifying than whether I will fall in love with my iPhone. Because I could fall in love with a boy, now, in 2014. Maybe that one here in the library, with the horn-rimmed glasses and slightly floppy hair; I could slip myself slyly between words, hide my reddened cheeks, leave my body behind.