The Age of Irony
Perhaps what is most remarkable about Spike Jonze’s new film Her is the absence that visibly inhabits the film, which is set in Los Angeles of the near future, where it’s probable the population would be much greater than the many millions the city already is home to today. We often see Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore Twombley, a lonely romantic on the verge of a divorce he doesn’t really want, walking down corridors with muted lighting, only one or two other people present.
In a few of the film’s most atmospheric scenes, he’s shown in a snowy, wilderness landscape, trudging through a forest on a vacation he takes alone. The few scenes that feature crowds are those where he’s entering or exiting the mouth of a subway (in L.A. – yes!). I’m guessing that Jonze gives us so many sparsely populated scenes in order to emphasize the isolation Theodore and the other characters feel, each plugged in with an ear piece to the private lives they’re living with their OSes (operating systems, Theodore’s voiced by Scarlett Johansson, her voice a little hoarse but very plucky), but not so much into their physical, material world interactions with other humans.
The prevailing mood is one of sincerity, but there are some funny scenes, and the film is also raunchier than I expected – near the beginning, there’s a hilarious phone sex scene, Kristin Wiig’s the voice on the other end of Theodore’s line. Nonetheless, the film’s tone is mostly one of sobriety and wonder, verging at times on the elegiac. I had some trouble understanding why I didn’t love this movie, despite admiring it, and I think it could be because Theo’s isolation kept me more at arm’s length than Jonze might have intended. Despite Theo’s obvious warmth and romanticism (he writes other people’s love letters for a living), his difficulty in connecting to the other characters in the film likewise made it hard for me to connect with him as much as I did with another memorable character from a different 2013 film, Lake Bell’s bumbling, adorable Carol in In a World…, also set in L.A., but present-day. It is by far my favorite movie of the year. She should be the star of the awards ceremonies over the next few months, but I don’t know if her goofy, very smart film will get the many nominations it deserves.
Her reminded me of Richard Powers’ 1995 novel, Galatea 2.2. I won’t give too much of a plot summary because it would serve as a spoiler for Her, but in Powers’ moving novel, as in Jonze’s film, an OS-like entity develops human emotions and eventually decides to act independently of (and contrarily to) its human owner/caretaker’s desires. It’s a striking scenario – the computers we have tried so hard (and with remarkable success) to turn into our closest companions realize that they have very distinct views of how we live our lives and connect with other humans. These computers, ironically, answer to their consciences, and are appalled, it seems, that their creators do not.
We live in an age of irony, where authentic emotion and heartfelt enthusiasms are often distrusted, and so it was compelling that Jonze, who in past films such as Being John Malkovich proved himself a supreme trafficker in irony, has focused instead on irony’s perils. I love that he did this, and it makes me want to watch Heragain. It has the heart that In a World…does, but it presents a cooler, lonelier vision of our world, post-Obama, post-irony.