Her (2013) starts with an unoriginal premise: guy falls for an inappropriate thing, his society doesn’t judge him for it, and the audience is left to (a) reconsider their understanding of relationships and/or (b) fear a future in which falling for an operating system is acceptable. (Substitute an android or doll for the operating system and you’ll find you’ve seen this film before.)
Her asks that you support this odd love, but the only time that has worked for me is with Laura (1944), in which detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) becomes so enamored by others’ descriptions of and a portrait of a murder victim that he can barely function. The trick of the film is that it seduces the audience so completely that we cease to find this love creepy at all, something that never happened to me in the 126 minutes of Her.
Both Her and Laura benefit from the wise casting of their heroines. Scarlett Johansson’s voice is so sexy and Gene Tierney’s face so perfect that the audience’s first reaction is Of course! Who wouldn’t fall for her?
It’s in the development of the hero that Laura succeeds and Her stumbles. There’s nothing wrong with Joaquin Phoenix’s open, touching performance. But the level of Theodore’s (Phoenix’s) romanticism is so extreme (he actually FEELS every word of the cheesy cards he writes for a living) and his enjoyment of his world so intense that you can’t help thinking this guy would fall for a Milk Dud. We might like Theodore, but how could we possibly relate to him?
McPherson, on the other hand, is guarded in Laura, a much more common condition for those who’ve been burned by past relationships, as Her’s Theodore has been. When asked whether he’s ever been in love, McPherson quips, “A doll in Washington Heights once got a fox fur outta me.” As his passion for the murder victim, Laura (Tierney), increases, McPherson resists and denies it, trying to keep his professionalism intact. The audience can therefore empathize with his struggle, especially since some types of police work can demand obsession (mystery writer James Ellroy once claimed Laura was a favorite film of cops he knew).
Almost as problematic as the characterization of Her’s Theodore are the impressionistic scenes critics are applauding. Are they beautiful? Yes. But their lengthiness gave me too much time to think: Why would someone so outgoing primarily socialize with video games? Am I meant to believe people like those awful cards he writes? WHO SMILES THIS MUCH? Laura, at 88 minutes total, fits in the detective’s love AND the solution to the whodunit. It speeds along with such rapidity that the audience forgets that McPherson’s love is just as, if not more, disturbing than the affections of Laura’s former admirers.
It’s in depicting these former admirers/suspects that Laura really excels, especially with cynical Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), whose one-liners keep the audience alternately laughing and cringing, often at the hero’s expense: “You’d better watch out, McPherson, or you’ll end up in a psychiatric ward. I don’t think they’ve ever had a patient who fell in love with a corpse.” Jonze’s film desperately needs a Lydecker, as its cloying mood soon becomes monotonous, and Amy Adams does nothing but bolster her friend’s feelings for the operating system. (Does Spike Jonze require screenwriter Charles Kaufman to avoid taking himself too seriously? Where is the light touch of Being John Malkovich?)
As it drifts along in its dreamy way, Her demands that you continue to contemplate its hero’s unhealthy love. Laura simply expects you to accept its. As a result, I felt drained by Her and intrigued by Laura. Unless you want sugar shock, I suggest you stick with the older film too.
The high-waisted pants on men have pained me in Laura and other 40s films. Could future fashion designers be so cruel as to bring back such an unflattering style and combine it with melon shades, as we see in Her? And if not, why did Jonze make me suffer through it? It takes a lot to make this man look unattractive:
But Jonze certainly succeeded.
Vincent Price (the murder victim’s former fiancé) is such a wimp in Laura that it’s shocking to realize he scared whole generations of moviegoers and Michael Jackson fans.
Apparently, fans of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Phoenix’s costar in The Master, also noticed Her’s dire need for sarcasm and did a fake promo for the film with Hoffman’s voice instead of Johansson’s. Listening to it was one of the few joys possible after hearing about Hoffman’s death (not PG rated, for you parents out there).
What are your thoughts on Laura and Her? (Please avoid bringing up anything in the second half of Laura, as I’d like to avoid spoilers.)