Lately I’ve been following the buzz about a movie from Spike Jonze called “Her.” It stars Joaquin Phoenix and focuses on his relationship with an operating system named Samantha. Presumably set a bit in the future, this operating system is fully interactive, in that it can carry a conversation with you and sort through your digital life. It even reads through your email to get a sense of what’s going on in your life. In the two trailers that are out now you watch Phoenix’s character Theodore become attached to the system and carry his phone around like his girlfriend, with the camera facing the world. In the most recent trailer, his ex-wife admonishes him, exclaiming that he always wanted the comfort of a relationship without the challenge of actually dealing with someone else in your life. And yet when Samantha asks him what being married is like, you hear Theodore say that there’s something special about sharing your life with someone else. I guess the final question is if you can fully share you life with someone who’s just a voice presence or you need a real flesh and blood person.
My online consumption is heavy on reading discussions, so through many comments on the posts about Her I was reminded of Lars and the Real Girl with Ryan Gosling. I remembered that the movie was also based around someone not being able to connect with the world and dealing with those issues by believing his mail-order life-sized doll was a real person. I had a night in trying to fight a cold, I pulled up the movie on Netflix streaming (hooray!) and revisited the story.
Obviously, major wow credit goes to Ryan Gosling’s acting. Immediately we are introduced to the slow pacing of his interactions with people, especially how he chooses his words carefully and willfully ignores comments he doesn’t want to (or can’t) respond to. His brother Gus, who lives in the family house with his pregnant wife while Lars lives in the garage, is played by the actor who is now best known to me as Mark Brandoquitz from Parks & Rec. He does a great job here as someone who had the opposite reaction to their family’s problems (you often see siblings take different routes to deal with the same trauma), and he simultaneously tries to ignore what’s wrong with his brother as well as help him.
One of the big developments in the movie comes when Lars talks with the psychologist “treating” Bianca and he admits that he hates being touched. To him, a touch burns and he can’t stand the hugs from Karen, his brother’s wife. The psychologist tests his limits by touching his arm, which is painful but bearable. When she goes for his neck he freaks out. You see this come up later with the “real human” love interest, when Lars opening shakes her hand and starts to see the potential in connecting with other people.
Another defining moment is the scene where Lars demands his brother tell him how he knew when he was a man. Gus gets flustered, eventually describing several big picture ideas, including doing what’s right for everyone even when it hurts, being good to people around you, and admitting when you’re wrong. He comments, “It sounds like it’s easy and for some reason it’s not.”
I think that’s why these kinds of movies hit such a cord with people and make a strong emotional impact: we all struggle with parts of life that seem like they should be easy. It shouldn’t be so hard to act like an adult, to make friends in your twenties, to figure out what kind of life plan you want, to make the obvious right choice. We all move around, act like idiots, make huge mistakes, feel lonely and act selfishly at times. And we all choose to reach out or engage in the different ways that brings us comfort, while the bigger choices and decisions sit nearby, waiting for us to be ready.
Thinking about the trailer for Her, I can see the similarities to Lars. Or, in a way, it’s a follow up to Lars and the Real Girl. It’s as if Lars grew up, learned to connect with people, only to get crushed when his marriage fell apart and reverted to isolating behavior. Except with Theodore turning to his phone as a point of connection, since it (she?) can actually converse with him, he creates a codependent relationship that will be harder to break. I really can’t wait to see what the movie is all about.