The Heart Machine

Based on the description I read of this indie, and on the trailer I watched, I thought it looked intriguing and I expected to like it quite a bit. Mostly it didn’t connect with me, though. There wasn’t the kind of mystery or suspense to it that I had anticipated. It seemed disappointingly low stakes.

Then in the end, when I was able to step back from it and consider it as a whole, my reaction was, OK, I guess for what it is, it’s kind of a thoughtful little movie, not without some merit. It’s probably more accurate to say that the story and the feel of the film were different from what I anticipated rather than weaker than what I anticipated (though I would still say there’s a little bit of the latter too).

The premise of the film is that Cody and Virginia are two young people who met online and have gradually gotten more serious with each other, but who still haven’t had their first in-person meeting yet because he lives in New York and she is in Germany for a few months. Then he comes upon evidence that she is not in fact in Germany but has also been in New York all along, and he seeks to track her down to find out why she lied and who she really is.

For some reason, the film starts from the point when he discovers that she is likely in New York. There’s no backstory explaining how they met, what she said to him about being in Germany, how their online relationship has developed, etc. Indeed, it’s really only from having read the description and seen the trailer in advance that I knew all that context. Granted, a small amount of that is filled in later via flashbacks, but it just seems odd the way it starts in the middle.

And then most of the mystery is eliminated very early. As soon as he starts investigating it at all, it’s clear she has indeed lived in New York this whole time. Plus, if we didn’t pick that up from watching him gather more and more evidence, the film is structured as parallel scenes of his life and her life, so we see her living and working and socializing in New York, not Germany.

Furthermore, the more he finds out and the more we see of her in her scenes, the less this film has any kind of ominous or suspenseful feel to it. There’s no indication she’s trying to get money from him or exploit or harm him, or that she’s a criminal or insane or something.

From quite early in the movie about the only thing left unsettled is whether she made up an excuse to avoid meeting him sooner than she was comfortable doing, or whether she never intended to meet him at all and wanted solely a remote relationship. So, insofar as there’s a mystery I suppose that’s what it is: Is she putting off meeting him temporarily or permanently, and whichever it is, why is she doing that?

But that doesn’t exactly make for edge of one’s seat suspense. I mean, there doesn’t seem to be more to it than that she wanted to control if and when they meet in person, and not to feel pressured to rush things. I would think it’s pretty common for a person, especially a woman, to feel that way.

I think he’s overreacting, in fact. If I were in his shoes, yeah I suppose I’d be disappointed to find out she lied to me, but I doubt I’d experience it as something horrible or malicious. It’s online dating: isn’t it pretty much par for the course that people are going to lie about one thing or another in presenting themselves to a new person? (Maybe I shouldn’t even qualify that sentence with “online.”) You know, people lie and spin about their age, their weight, how much hair they have, their income, how upbeat and fun their personality is, whether their most recent relationship has really fully ended, etc. It’s not the most admirable aspect of human behavior, but when you’re trying to get sex or whatever it is you want out of a potential dating situation, it’s kind of par for the course. Pretending you’ll be unavailable to meet for the next few months until you see how things develop doesn’t seem like it would even make the top ten of most unforgivable dating lies.

But he gets really angry about it, and obsessive about needing to track her down and find out the truth. Not that it’s very hard; she really hasn’t constructed some elaborate, sophisticated phony online persona and carefully covered her tracks. She has used her real name, he can access her Facebook page, and he can find things out by Googling her. It takes him about five minutes to figure out what neighborhood she lives in, and from there he further narrows his search in little time.

He takes more risks than he probably needs to, or than I’d have the guts to. Multiple times he makes some superficial connection with strangers and then when they briefly step out of the room he goes through their purse, phone, computer, etc.

Dude, maybe she’s a flake or whatever, but she didn’t want to meet you right away. It’s not that big a deal for you to be getting all The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries about it.

It’s interesting too that while he’s supposed to be totally into her, and she might be similarly totally into him even if reluctant to meet in person too soon, as we watch the parallel scenes of them neither of them seems to have the slightest problem generating interest from the opposite sex or getting laid.

One of the main reactions I had while watching the film is that I just never felt significant chemistry between these two. I mean, we’re supposed to believe that one and possibly both of them has really fallen for the other, but I wasn’t feeling the magic at all. Furthermore, even though they’re both kind of intellectual, artsy types, their communication, their banter, is really flat. To me at least, it’s just not particularly clever or witty or even sweet.

For that matter, I thought the young people in general in this movie were somehow off-putting or uninteresting. The women are pretty much all reasonably hot, but I felt a lot less drawn to them than I should have been based on looks alone. I don’t know if it’s a vague arrogance, or a sense that they’re more closed than they’re letting on (or I suppose maybe the writing and/or acting is weak), but I just felt like there was no one in this Manhattan milieu that seemed like I’d be able to connect with them or would be a really cool person to know.

I remember when I saw the very low budget, obscure indie Quiet City, and my reaction was that there were a lot more weaknesses than strengths to it—for one thing there was very little story, very little action—but that even though I wouldn’t be eager to sit through another movie like it, it connected really well with me in one respect, which is that it captured certain intangibles about the awkward but so exciting and potentially life-changing phenomenon of stumbling your way through the beginnings of a connection with a new person of the opposite sex. It’s that kind of magic that was so missing from the people in this movie, including the central couple specifically.

I mean, I think it’s supposed to be present, we’re supposed to believe that that’s what’s going on, but I’m sorry I just wasn’t feeling it. There’s flirting, there’s dating, there’s sex (via Skype and real) in this movie, but somehow it just doesn’t look meaningful or even very fun.

So, like I say, The Heart Machine isn’t the kind of suspenseful tale that I thought it was going to be and that maybe it’s trying to be of this guy tracking down this mystery woman to uncover the deep dark secrets of who she really is and what kind of con or whatever is going on with her. It’s more of an examination of psychological and ethical matters like the ramifications of trying to safeguard your own emotional well-being with a white lie told early in a relationship that perhaps manifests insufficient consideration for the other party’s emotional well-being, what unintended consequences might ensue, and so on. As such it does provide a modest amount of food for thought.

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