Spike Jonze’s “Her”: Critiquing America’s Love Affair with Hollywood

A movie poster advertising Spike Jonze's film "Her." On the right side of the image is actor Joaquin Phoneix staring seriously into the camera. He wears a bright coral shirt. The background is a bright coral similar to his shirt. On the left, the image reads: "Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, and Scarlett Johansson." Beneath the actors' names is the film title, "Her," in lowercase letters. The tagline beneath the film title reads "A Spike Jonze Love Story."


The world’s love affair with celebrities has gotten out of hand. I’ll admit that I’m a part of this massive head-over-heels, obsessive group of individuals (ranging from 12 to mid-fifties and beyond) that craves a three-hour block on Tumblr (or Reddit, or Buzzfeed), to scroll through images, GIFs, Avengers fan fiction, and even interviews with all of my favorite celebrities. I swoon, I cry, and I get excited over the smallest things — from a change in haircut and/or color to the news of a pregnancy, or another interview with an actor who this woman has worked with several times before. But what, exactly, am I swooning over? Who she really is? What that actor actually thinks about his co-worker? What I can only imagine he or she feels about the film and his or her costars? So how does Spike Jonze’s Her comment on all of this?

I dragged my girlfriend to see this film in January for one reason: Scarlett Johansson. I didn’t care that she didn’t actually appear on screen — it’s her voice that always gets me. When I first discovered that she would portray Samantha, the voice of the fictional OS 1 operating system, and the voice which would become Theodore Twombly’s object of affection, I instantly connected. A man, lonely and middle-aged, who falls over a projected image of someone — nay, something — which he believed to be real, despite the fact that he consciously knew it–She– was not real. Don’t we all do this? We see a great movie and fall in love with one or a set of characters/actors (it doesn’t matter, because we will confound their identities anyway). We go on Tumblr and various forms of social media and observe these people over and over to prolong the sense of enjoyment of the film/television show/actor, and before we know it, the exposure effect has us wishing there were an actor just like this in real life for us to date, cherish, and dote over for the rest of our lives.

The choice of Scarlett Johansson to voice Samantha was a clever one — not only was this a device in Jonze’s way of responding to his ex-wife’s film, Sophia Coppola’s Lost In Translation (also starring Scarlett), but it allows for this connection with the audience. At some point in time, Scarlett Johansson’s name was one of the most risky to search on the internet, for searches for her images were inevitably attached to viruses and other bugs that would infect peoples’ computers as soon as they clicked onto certain websites. Scarlett is big — perhaps one of the most beautiful people in Hollywood at the moment (Esquire certainly thinks so). If you already weren’t in love with her voice, you certainly are after viewing the film. It is her most distinctive trait — her husky vocals lure us in (regardless of your sexuality) and enamor us. As Theodore falls for her, so do we. Whether or not Theodore cares about Samantha’s fictitiousness is irrelevant: he’s enjoying his time with her and doesn’t care what anyone else says. Fake or not, he feels safe with someone that has little potential to hurt him, thus affording him a cushiony relationship with his operating system. Images, voices, and interviews may be a nice escape from the real world, but at the end of the day, you turn off your laptop and must remember that these celebrities, as far as we are concerned, exist within our screens: they will never be real to us unless we actively pursue red carpets and Broadway stage side doors — even then are they mirages, walking from door to door to escape the crazy public: us.

Theodore is hesitant to experience true intimacy with actual people: his brief fling with Amy (Amy Adams) in college is evidence, as is his inclination to speak with Samantha all the time instead of real people (other than Amy and her husband). Imagining the images of the pregnant celebrity as he engages in phone sex with SexKitten (Kristen Wiig) supports the idea that many individuals take to imagining celebrities and musicians, their standards of “perfection,” when engaging in such activities and in general when dreaming about their lives and ideal partners/situations. Our love affair is perpetuated by the internet and the limitless information on our favorite actors, especially those who are or were particularly big in Hollywood. As much as we engross ourselves in those projected images of our favorite characters and celebrities, we will never be as intimate with these people as we would like to think we are/can be if we could just meet the person.

Two examples come to mind: one young woman I know is obsessed with Morrissey. She’s been to dozens of his concerts and is even convinced that they had a connection when he made eye contact with her. Whether or not this is true — the eye contact part, I mean — is irrelevant. She is one living example of obsession and deep love through exposure and repeated concert-going experiences. Whether or not she will ever meet Morrissey isn’t really debatable — I’m sure she will save up enough one day to have a private meet and greet, but it is doubtful that she and the great singer will ever have a connection. Likewise, a friend of mine is deeply in love with Tom Hiddleston, as are millions of people around the world.  She has said to me several times that she will never be happy in life because she knows that there is a perfect man out there — nay, the perfect man for her — that she will never meet in her life. She gets depressed over this. She admitted that she may never find love because of the sheer fact that she has seen a man to model her expectations after, which is indubitably damaging to her future prospects. Like Theodore, these two women are in love with an image of someone that they will never physically be with — just in their minds are they connected.

So what happens when we are removed from the constant celebrity-filled stimuli? We freak out. These people are our world: without these people to fill our seemingly empty lives, we are miserable. The moment that Samantha is out of Theodore’s reach, he flips out. He runs around trying to reconnect service. When he finally does get her back, it sounds as if he were about to cry. Theodore acts as if he were a child that lost his mother — someone whose best friend was just killed or is currently dying in a street. The need to have reassurance of her presence is indicative of something deeper.

Theodore’s (soon to be) ex-wife criticizes him for not being able to handle real emotions. In this age of “iTechnology” and Tumblr and every other vice we use, what is real anyway? We text people from one room of the house to another. We hardly talk to each other face-to-face; when we are together, we stare down at our phones to fill the awkward silences and the time, for we don’t know how to deal with awkward situations. We need our constant comfort by our side so that we are not given a moment of silence to recognize how lonely we actually all are.

If the two women discussed above were to actually meet Morrissey and Tom Hiddleston, what would these two men think of their fans? They might be flattered at first, but then as these women would talk, they would begin to reveal all of the things they knew about them — or thought they knew about them. Perhaps the one woman would confuse Tom Hiddleston’s television/interview persona for his actual one — perhaps she would mistake his actual persona for the one he portrays as F. Scott Fitzgerald in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. The more these women would speak, the creepier they would appear to the celebrities. But because they do not come into contact with either of the men, this stalker-like quality never appears. If they were to obsess and indulge in, say, their next door neighbor the way they do with their respective celebrities, it would be construed as serious stalking. The remove of Hollywood allows millions of people to feel this way without the restraining order. Theodore’s blind date, Olivia Wilde, is not given a name (which I believe is intentional — what does it matter? We’ll see whatever she does on screen to be a part of her actual personality. When we refer to how Olivia Wilde likes to have a good time out, we’ll recall this film — we will not separate the role from who she actually is. The same goes for Amy Adams. Her name is Amy in the film, thus allowing us to confuse Amy, the character, and her mannerisms for the actress’ own. Yes, there are elements of the actor in the character, but there is more than meets the eye!). Olivia Wilde points out that Theodore is actually “a really creepy dude.” She says this because all he talks about is his virtual worlds, thus conveying the idea that he does not actually have a life outside of the screens he preoccupies himself with, projected (literally) or not. The more he talks, the more evident it becomes that Theodore wishes to be — if he isn’t already — entirely removed from reality.

With this said, Theodore’s job is rather interesting: he writes letters for people because they do not either have the time, nor depth of emotion, to write the fluff Theodore is able to, despite his supposed inability to handle “real” emotion. What experience, then, does Theodore call upon to create such letters? He describes his experience with one couple, whose letters he has been writing for years. He saw images of the woman and her “crooked little tooth.” From these images and brief description of their relationship, Theodore was able to imagine their life together and their experiences, and thus his beautiful letters are born. What is this, if not the exact same thing that Tumblr-goers do with Tom Hiddleston and Scarlett Johansson and Jennifer Lawrence? Viewing just a few images and interviews gives each of us the right to make character judgments about them, right? Because we see these celebrities evolve, just as Samantha has the ability to evolve through her experiences, we are led to believe that these people want to share their lives with us (why else would they do so many interviews?). Despite all of our beliefs and notions that if Jennifer Lawrence was right here and could actually talk to us, she would want to be our best friend, the fact remains that she exists in a world beyond our own — not only just on the other side of our screens, but in Hollywood, which is as fantastical and fictional as it gets. You may live in LA or Beverly Hills, but those people do not exist. In the slight chance you do see one of these actors on the street, they are disguised. Without Photoshop, the makeup and/or clothes, and the microphones in their faces, they are just people who likely would not measure up to your expectations anyway (well, Jennifer Lawrence might). Our perceptions of these people may be accurate behind our screens, but most will fall terribly short of reality.

The world in which Theodore Twombly navigates is populated and futuristic, yet chillingly familiar and lonely. The thousands of people that walk the streets with Theodore often move the same way as he does — plugged in and tuned out. Many are talking to their own OS 1s, and only a few are with their families, actually enjoying life. Perhaps the only company people will keep in the future is that of their iPhones and electronics; we are not too far from that now anyway.

Abigail Haworth, in an October 2013 article, reported on the peculiar incident in Japan, directly related to technology: “what Japan’s media calls sekkusu shinai shokogun, or ‘celibacy syndrome'”. She explains:

Japan’s under-40s appear to be losing interest in conventional relationships. Millions aren’t even dating, and increasing numbers can’t be bothered with sex. For their government, “celibacy syndrome” is part of a looming national catastrophe. Japan already has one of the world’s lowest birth rates. Its population of 126 million, which has been shrinking for the past decade, is projected to plunge a further one-third by 2060. Aoyama believes the country is experiencing “a flight from human intimacy” – and it’s partly the government’s fault . . . The number of single people has reached a record high. A survey in 2011 found that 61% of unmarried men and 49% of women aged 18-34were not in any kind of romantic relationship, a rise of almost 10% from five years earlier. Another study found that a third of people under 30had never dated at all. (There are no figures for same-sex relationships.) Although there has long been a pragmatic separation of love and sex in Japan – a country mostly free of religious morals – sex fares no better. A survey earlier this year by the Japan Family Planning Association (JFPA) found that 45% of women aged 16-24 “were not interested in or despised sexual contact”. More than a quarter of men felt the same way.

Although the women’s attitudes partially attribute to the fact that women are traditionally expected to stay home and be the housewife, it seems as though traditional roles do not fit men’s desires, either. “‘Both men and women say to me they don’t see the point of love. They don’t believe it can lead anywhere,’ says Aoyama. ‘Relationships have become too hard.'” Haworth continues:

Aoyama says the sexes, especially in Japan’s giant cities, are “spiralling away from each other”. Lacking long-term shared goals, many are turning to what she terms “Pot Noodle love” – easy or instant gratification, in the form of casual sex, short-term trysts and the usual technological suspects: online porn, virtual-reality “girlfriends”, anime cartoons. Or else they’re opting out altogether and replacing love and sex with other urban pastimes.

Despite how otherworldly Her comes across as, we see that this is a possibility for the future of mankind. For these Japanese men and women, it is easier to fantasize about fictional people and situations than it is to deal with them in real life. Theodore opens himself up to criticism when in his relationship with his ex-wife and during his first (and only) date with Olivia Wilde, which ultimately leaves him wounded and confused, and thus running back to Samantha and the comfort of his technology. Think about the ostracized world in which you live:  would you rather sit comfortably behind a computer screen knowing that you’re relatively safe from harm and belittlement, or put yourself on the stage of life and face the audience head on?  Hollywood faces the world head on—the only difference is they’re in front of the screen to be scrutinized, and we sit behind the screen to pass judgment freely.


Work Cited

Haworth, Abigail. “Why Have Young People in Japan Stopped Having Sex?” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 19 Oct. 2013. Web. 14 June 2014. <http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/20/young-people-japan-stopped-having-sex>.

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