As you probably know, there's a name for a certain type of quirky female character that shows up in romantic comedies: the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Critic Nathan Rabin coined the term in a 2007 A.V. Club takedown of the Cameron Crowe film Elizabethtown, describing this done-to-death archetype, which trades in precociousness and adorableness, as one that "exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures." The Manic Pixie Dream Girl has risen to prominence thanks to actresses like Zooey Deschanel (500 Days of Summer, New Girl), but these characters' male counterparts haven't received the same amount of attention or scorn. I'm not sure why. The broodingly soulful young man—the Sad-Sack Sensitive Guy—is certainly annoying enough to deserve his own spotlight.
Right on cue comes Her, the fine new film from writer-director Spike Jonze that depicts a not-too-distant future where people are so cut off emotionally from one another that it's easier to fall in love with your computer. The comedy-drama stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore, a sensitive writer who works for a company that composes heartfelt letters for other people. (Want to wish your wife a happy 50th wedding anniversary? Just hire Theodore.) In his personal life, Theodore is divorcing his childhood sweetheart Catherine (Rooney Mara), which leaves him miserable and lonely—until he buys a new operating system with artificial intelligence that calls itself Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Designed to be a personal assistant, Samantha becomes attracted to sweet, mild Theodore, and he in turn feels a kinship with this flirty, adoring voice inside his mainframe.
Critics have praised Her as a commentary on our increasingly isolated lives as we form virtual friendships over Facebook rather than face-to-face. (As The Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy put it, "Her ponders the nature of love in the encroaching virtual world and dares to ask the question of what might be preferable, a romantic relationship with a human being or an electronic one that can be designed to provide more intimacy and satisfaction than real people can reliably manage.") But Jonze's film also proves to be a cutting indictment of the sort of Sad-Sack Sensitive Guy that appears in contemporary love stories. Though set in the future, Her really addresses our present—and one of its best insights is noting how a certain type of contemporary man, by trying to be so considerate and in touch with his feelings, is actually doing himself a disservice by overvaluing his laudable assets.
The Sad-Sack Sensitive Guy is a character we've seen for years, from Say Anything to Swingers to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. There is a lot to like about them: They're caring and intelligent, and they treat other people (especially their female love interests) with respect. But there's a downside to the assumed sweetness of such guys, and it's rarely been explored as trenchantly as in Her. When we first meet Theodore, he's demonstrating his emotional depth at his job, writing beautiful love letters for people he's never met. Nonetheless, that talent can't mask his melancholy about losing his true love, and so, he mostly mopes around L.A. listening to sad songs. (He also tries a little phone sex, but it freaks him out.) Theodore's sensitivity is commendable, even if those around him have a backhanded way of complimenting him about it. An impressed coworker praises Theodore's writing ability by saying that he's "part man, part woman," and when Theodore goes on a blind date, the gorgeous woman affectionately describes him as a puppy dog, which disappoints him. ("I want to be a dragon," he protests.) With his nerdy glasses and ineffectual manner, Theodore is, essentially, a wimp. A fantastic writer, a good listener, a thoughtful friend, a person who feels things profoundly—it's mentioned a couple times in Her that Theodore cries easily—but alas, a wimp.
Jonze knows a thing or two about such characters. His movies have been filled with them: the luckless puppeteer of Being John Malkovich, the dorky screenwriter of Adaptation, the young boy and his imaginary buddy Carol in Where the Wild Things Are. And in Her, it's clear that his heart goes out to Theodore, who has found in Samantha a more fulfilling relationship than anything he's known for a while.
But Jonze's compassion doesn't keep Her from being critical about how sensitive men can use their sensitivity as a way to hide in a childlike bubble. Occasionally, Jonze flashes back to brief moments from Theodore and Catherine's relationship, and it's often a snippet of a cutesy-quirky interaction, the most egregious being when the two of them play with orange traffic cones on a freeway ramp, putting them over their heads and playfully jousting. What we see is a marriage that was almost infantile; their relationship appears to have been one that was puppy-love idealized to the point of abstraction, where the complications of adulthood—desires, fears, sex—barely factored. (It's telling that the closest the flashbacks come to the bedroom is Catherine asking Theodore to spoon with her.)
This boyish moping and sanitized attitude toward sex is common in real-life Sad-Sack Sensitive Guys, particularly from effete indie-rock artists like Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard (the former Mr. Zooey Deschanel). These sorts of moony singer-songwriters brood over their girl problems, confused as to why she didn't appreciate what a nice guy he was. Her could be an indie-rock song, detailing how the milquetoast hero just wants to find a woman who "gets" him. Like those artists, Theodore is more comfortable exploring his own feelings than worrying about his partner's. Though he and Samantha have great chemistry and a vibrant (virtual) sex life, it's a one-way, unequal relationship. Theodore clearly cares about her, but she serves him—both as an operating system and as a girlfriend. (She organizes his e-mails and hard drive while also attending to his still-lingering sadness over losing Catherine, cheering him up and boosting his self-esteem, even trying to find a publisher for his writing.) Simply a voice inside a computer, Samantha is only beginning to develop a consciousness, which leaves her admiring and envious of Theodore's superior human complexity.
That's the ideal scenario for a lot of Sad-Sack Sensitive Guys who think that not being a jerk somehow grants them automatic gratitude from their girlfriends. But the problem is that real relationships don't work so smoothly, which Theodore quickly discovers. In Her, he speaks eloquently about the fear of getting older, of the idea that he's already felt every emotion in his life and that, in the future, he's just going to feel lesser versions of those same feelings. It's a touching sentiment—the sort of introspective insight Sad-Sack Sensitive Guys can be relied on to deliver. But his tragedy is that his feelings are mostly inwardly directed: He's too selfish to share them with those closest to him. Apparently, that's been his problem since childhood. When Theodore is initially setting up his operating system, the final question he's asked is, "How would you describe your relationship with your mother?" It seems like a throwaway joke, but soon it proves prescient: Theodore doesn't want a partner as much as he wants a mothering woman who takes care of his needs.
Without giving away anything, let it be said that Her eventually raises the stakes when Samantha's A.I. starts evolving. Her's saddest joke is that although Theodore is the human being in the relationship, Samantha's personal growth far eclipses his. Theodore's stunted maturity, which he perceives to be an evolved sensitivity, leaves him perhaps destined never to find true happiness. Like many sweet guys, he deserves a great woman—he's a catch for plenty of reasons. But feeling things deeply isn't the same as feeling them clearly and honestly. Eventually, we have to grow up and realize that our own feelings aren't all that matter.
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros and Her