Note: This is the third of three articles about online dating.
In writer-director Spike Jonze’s new film “Her,” Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a personalized greeting card writer who has trouble connecting with women. Socially awkward, depressed and in the midst of a divorce, Theodore’s life gets a boost when he starts dating Samantha (played by Scarlett Johansson), an operating system, or “O.S.” Because Samantha is in fact a highly sophisticated computer, she has no physical form; rather, she is a projection of Theodore’s wants and needs.
Before long, Theodore is regularly conversing with Samantha at night, sharing his thoughts, dreams and fears, and falling in love with “Her.”
Sympathetic, nurturing, funny and intelligent, Samantha seems human, and it’s easy to forget (as Theodore does) that she’s not. Theodore and Samantha even enjoy a sex scene so touching and titillating you have to remind yourself that Theodore is really just masturbating.
Samantha is every single man’s dream; Theodore is every single woman’s nightmare.
As a single woman in New York, this film struck me as deeply resonant. Theodore’s preference for technology over actual attempts to achieve intimacy reminded me of patterns my friends and I have observed recently among some men here.
Last summer, while volunteering at a synagogue soup kitchen, my friend Leah, an articulate, svelte college instructor in her early 40s, met a man I’ll call Blake, a real estate attorney (names have been changed). She described him as “sweet” and “adorable in an offbeat way,” with dimples and a high forehead. (She didn’t mind his receding hairline.)
The day after they met, Blake sent Leah a friend request on Facebook. She accepted, visited his page and saw pictures of him playing hockey with his nephews and sailing with his late grandparents, all of which reinforced her sense of him as family-oriented and sincere.
A few days later, Blake started making playful remarks on Leah’s Facebook page, and even joined Leah’s aunt in commenting in Yiddish about Leah’s “shayna punim.”
Leah thought Blake might ask her out. He didn’t. Every so often, though, usually after someone tagged a photo of Leah on Facebook, he would make a flattering comment about it, such as “Wow.” Finally, Leah decided to suggest a get-together.
“I figured maybe he’s shy and I should give him an opening to take things from Facebook to reality,” she said. She sent him a note asking for a bit of his time, either over the phone or over drinks, to get his opinion on the Manhattan condo market. Blake chose drinks, Leah chose a sexy and tasteful wraparound dress, and they met.
After a few minutes of discussing real estate, Blake started talking about women he’d recently dated, including one who he said “mocked” him for keeping kosher. Leah listened, telling herself she shouldn’t resent Blake’s sharing his women problems with her since it wasn’t officially a date. Still, she was confused; if he viewed her as a platonic friend, why all the Facebook compliments, especially about her looks?
Blake told Leah a dating horror story about a woman who demanded he buy her a Prada handbag after three months of courtship, and lamented the lack of “sweet, family-oriented women” in Manhattan. “Why should it be so difficult?” he said.
Before they parted, Blake gave Leah a flirtatious grin and remarked, “I’ll be stalking you on Facebook.”
Blake has never asked Leah out (but he occasionally still comments on her Facebook posts).
Leah is not the only woman in New York who speaks about men who seem to prefer cyber-stalking to actual dating. Andie, a 30-something advertising executive, has profiles on several online dating sites including JDate, OKCupid and Coffee Meets Bagel. She says that it’s not uncommon for men to engage her in lengthy e-mail back-and-forths asking “in-depth, insightful questions. But the second you suggest actually getting together — or even talking on the phone — they absolutely disappear.”
Are these men in the midst of conversations with 10 other women? Are they perfecting the art of virtual seduction, safe behind the curtain of their computer screens, never risking rejection or anything that could threaten their image of themselves as the Don Juans of cyberspace?
“Her” captures the phenomenon of some men’s preference for the virtual over the actual. And it is honest in hinting at why they might. It makes Samantha wonderfully easy on the nerves, and Theodore’s ex-wife Catherine, played by Rooney Mara, not so easy.
When they meet to sign their divorce papers, Catherine confronts Theodore, saying, “You’re having a relationship with your computer? It makes me very sad that you can’t handle real emotions. You always wanted to have a wife without the challenges of actually dealing with anything real.”
Ultimately, all Samantha can offer Theodore is a reflection of his own fantasies. He can never touch her, be touched by her or truly share with her. And he can never know that she chose him over other men, because she cannot choose.
Instead of a love story about two souls trying to connect, “Her” is a love story about Theodore’s own mind, which I don’t discount, for it has its own strange beauty. The truth is, relationships can be difficult, and maybe not everyone has the strength, at a given moment in time, to pursue one.
In an age when so much prefabricated stimulation, pleasure and distraction are readily available, to risk one’s ego and heart requires that we hunger for the experience of real connection with another real human being.
At the end of “Her” we are left with the impression that, whether or not he is strong enough to take real emotional risks, Theodore does grow at least somewhat.
If only men like Blake could take that step.
Table for One appears monthly.