Jan 30

“Her”: A Man Falls Romantically for His Operating System

Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix and written/directed by Spike Jonze, has created quite a stir, including among those who find it spoof-worthy, as in a recent short film by SNL starring Jonah Hill and Michael Cera.

The plot is summed up pithily by IMDB: “A lonely writer develops an unlikely relationship with his newly purchased operating system that’s designed to meet his every need.” The OS is Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson.

Peg Streep, writing in a Psychology Today post, points out that the film takes place in a context in which the majority readily accept Theodore’s relationship status:

The ease with which everyone accepts the relationship as ‘real’ is reminiscent of how quickly the culture has accommodated itself to the ‘new normal’ of living in the digital age, where seeing a couple eating dinner together while texting other people no longer seems strange or ‘friending’ people you don’t know so you can get more attention or feel better about yourself is okay.

Significant Plot Points

Tom Shone, The Guardian, sets it up:

…(T)he film is half in love with the loneliness it diagnoses…and for the first hour the conceit is unveiled beautifully, via a brisk series of gags, most of them in the periphery of the main plot. Theo’s workplace is a website called BeautfulHandwrittenLetters.com, where he sits in office composing personal notes for those who can’t be bothered…while a neighbour, played by a curly haired Amy Adams, designs video games in which mums pick up ‘Mom points’ for feeding the kids or beating the other mothers to the carpool, or else face the ignominious charge ‘You’ve Failed Your Children!’

Theo

Alonso DuraldeThe Wrap: “His own emotions…remain a mystery to Theodore; he’s been in a serious funk since breaking up with his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), to the point where his old college pal Amy (Amy Adams) invites him for a night out with friends but specifies that she’s asking the ‘old, fun’ Theodore to come.”

Samantha

Scott FoundasVariety: “Lack of physical presence notwithstanding, Samantha at first seems close to the male fantasy of the perfect woman: motherly and nurturing, always capable of giving her undivided attention, and (best of all) requiring nothing in return.”

Below you can watch the trailer:

Selected Reviews

Dana Stevens, Slate: “It’s a wistful portrait of our current love affair with technology in all its promise and disappointment, a post-human Annie Hall.”

Anthony Lane, New Yorker: “What makes ‘Her’ so potent is that it does to us what Samantha does to Theodore. We are informed, cosseted, and entertained, and yet we are never more than a breath away from being creeped out. Just because someone browses your correspondence in a mood of flirtatious bonhomie doesn’t make her any less invasive; and just because you have invited her to do so doesn’t mean that you are in control.”

Christopher Orr, The Atlantic:

By turns sad, funny, optimistic, and flat-out weird, it is a work of sincere and forceful humanism…

Indeed, by the end of the film, the central question Jonze is asking seems no longer even to be whether machines might one day be capable of love. Rather, his film has moved beyond that question to ask one larger still: whether machines might one day be more capable of love—in an Eastern philosophy, higher consciousness, Alan Wattsian way—than the human beings who created them.

Oct 07

“Don Jon”: Addictions Include Internet Porn and Romance

“Sure, sex is fun, but not nearly as satisfying as porn, Jon explains in the film’s flashy opening voiceover, articulating a troubling value shift few have had the courage to raise…” (Peter Debruge, Variety, about Don Jon)

Don Jon is a new comedy that’s essentially about certain addictions. Internet porn is one, the other is romance. Each is shown to have the potential to set up unrealistic expectations. Each can thus block one’s ability to achieve genuine closeness with another person.

The official movie description:

Jon Martello (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a strong, handsome, good old fashioned guy. His buddies call him Don Jon due to his ability to ‘pull’ a different woman every weekend, but even the finest fling doesn’t compare to the bliss he finds alone in front of the computer watching pornography. Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson) is a bright, beautiful, good old fashioned girl. Raised on romantic Hollywood movies, she’s determined to find her Prince Charming and ride off into the sunset. Wrestling with good old fashioned expectations of the opposite sex, Jon and Barbara struggle against a media culture full of false fantasies to try and find true intimacy in this unexpected comedy written and directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Rounding out the main cast of characters are a few others. Jon’s seen at family dinners with his “caricatured macho dad (Tony Danza) and hysterical mom (Glenne Headly)” (David DenbyThe New Yorker). And an older woman played by Julianne Moore eventually enters the picture and apparently serves as some sort of guide to him.

What’s Don Jon Being Compared To?

Peter Debruge, Variety: “Where Steve McQueen’s ‘Shame’ took the more obtuse art film approach to this sex-obsessed phenom, Gordon-Levitt weaves the topic into a broadly accessible romantic comedy, one that ultimately uses its in-your face style to sneak a few old-fashioned insights about how self-centered guys can learn to respect their partners.”

What Do We Learn About Porn Addiction?

For someone who gets continual gratification from porn, dating before sex is deemed the “long game.”

Robert Weiss, LCSW, Director of the Sexual Recovery Institute (The Huffington Post):

Even the way that Gordon-Levitt treats pornographic imagery in the film–as a rapid-fired succession of different, astoundingly attractive women– mirrors the way that porn addicts report behaving, in that they are always switching from one video to another, always searching for something newer, better and more exciting. For a porn addict, each hot new image hits home like a blast of crack cocaine. Each new image is a fix, and the more you fix, the better you feel.

What Do We Learn About Addiction to Romance?

Weiss (The Huffington Post) has this observation:

Barbara’s obsession is as potentially real as Jon’s, even if it’s portrayed in comic fashion, as we have long known that women tend to value an emotional connection more than sexual body parts. Thus, Barbara objectifies romantic relationships in much the same way that Don Jon objectifies breasts and buttocks, and with the same basic results, too, in that no one in the real world can live up to the unrealistic fantasies.

Apr 24

“We Bought a Zoo”: Zoo Therapy For a Grieving Widower

Did I think “schmaltzy” at least once or twice while watching We Bought a Zoo on the plane ride home from my vacation? Yup.

Did I also feel things that mattered even more times than that? Yup again.

Whereas Richard Corliss at Time calls We Bought a Zoo “pure cornography,” Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune differs. He points out that Matt Damon, as lead character Benjamin Mee, is largely responsible for keeping that very same element in check. “Damon, thank the family-friendly-movie gods, really knows how to hold his head above the corn,” Phillips says.

The film is based on a true story about a grieving widower with two kids to raise. Fourteen-year-old angry, sullen Dylan is acting out at school, while seven-year-old adorable Rosie shows signs of becoming overly self-sufficient and parentified in the wake of her mom’s loss.

Benjamin yearns so much to get to a better space emotionally for himself and his kids that he abruptly quits his job and makes a questionable move to a different physical space—a house with a zoo that happens to be in just as much need of repair as each of their hearts.

Along with the purchase of the zoo grounds comes its motley crew—not the least important of which is zookeeper Kelly, played by Scarlett Johansson. Like many who choose work that involves caring for animals, she comes across as being more concerned with their well-being than with people’s—or even her own.

Time for the trailer:

Can you can immediately see where it’s all going? Most assuredly. As James Berardinelli, ReelViews, notes, however: “The general sense of blandness and predictability that marks the story’s progression does not damage its emotional strengths. We feel for these characters and, because we care about them, we yearn for the highs the film ultimately delivers.”