The only truly predictable aspect of Spike Jonze's "Her" is that it features a bizarre premise: In a very near future, recently divorced L.A. writer Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) downloads a new operating system for his computer with the ability to think (delicately voiced by Scarlett Johansson) and quickly falls in love with her. In a time of talking smartphones and rampant interconnectivity, the idea certainly has an inquisitive edge, but it's not just a cheeky provocation; Jonze infuses the conceit with genuine passion.
As the peculiar romance plays out in surprisingly believable terms, the writer-director depicts a world that blatantly echoes our own, where sleek, all-encompassing technological immersion dominates every crevice of daily life. Even so, it's never the dour, epistemological investigation one might expect from the auteur behind creepy and surreal headtrips of "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation." If less adventurous than Jonze's earlier narratives, "Her" contains a far greater synthesis of imaginative effects and sentimentality than his previous studio effort, "Where the Wild Things Are." Certainly his most deeply felt achievement, "Her" is both distinctly Jonze-like and something altogether different, as if the filmmaker has gone through a software update not unlike his artificial character.
An impressive achievement for Jonze in his first solo writing credit, "Her" suggests the director's main takeaway from his studio travails on "Wild Things" was learning how to work the system. There's no sense of compromise to his oddball love story. Rather than navigating between eccentric touches and accessibility, Jonze has it both ways: "Her" is both a well-rounded commercial romance and a capricious exploration of technology's impact on identity in the information age.
When we first see Theodore in unflattering closeup, the mustachioed sad sack is dictating one of the innumerable canned love letters that he composes for his drab job at Beautiful Handmade Letters.com, an ironic title for a company exclusively involved in digital production. Despite that scene-setter, "Her" is neither workplace satire nor highfalutin treatise on the death of physical media. As the story fleshes out Theordore's solitary life, his conundrum has a familiar rhythm: He lies around in his cramped apartment haunted by flashbacks of his ex (Rooney Mara) and engages in lazy, hilariously unsatisfying phone sex. There's a gentle, melancholic quality to Theodore's routine as he goes through the motions of an unremarkable life -- until the day his new operating system arrives, asks him a few mechanical questions and promptly launches his new digital companion, who calls herself Samantha.
As voiced by Johansson, Samantha's an immediately likable, upbeat presence capable of rejuvenating Theodore's existence by providing him with the kindhearted girl of his dreams. Of course, that illusion starts to fray once the natural boundaries between the unrestrained powers of computer processing and the limitations of human intellect grow more distinct. "You know me so well!" Theodore chuckles as Samantha sifts through his hard drive. Indeed, she's simultaneously in control of his life and outside of it, a gulf made gradually apparent as the movie continues to complicate its invisible feminine protagonist.
Is social media anti-social? Has the information age divided us as much as it has been meant to unite? Is peer-to-peer simply an ironic term or are inter-personal, face-time relationships ripe for redefinition? While these are not the primary concerns of Spike Jonze’s lovely and perceptive relationship drama, “Her,” such implications are impossible to ignore in a movie that uses innovative and unconventional methods to explore some very universal anxieties.
Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a sensitive, heartbroken man going through a difficult period in his life. Though, looking in from the outside, you may not be able to tell by the touchingly personal and thoughtful letters he writes for BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com. In a utopian Los Angeles of the not-too-distant future where contemporary life feels convenient and warm, the disaffected Theodore is a ghost writer of letters, hired to pen correspondence for other people’s loved ones. He excels in his job despite his personal problems. And while this element of Jonze’s sensitively drawn examination of the nature (and absence) of intimacy, connection and communication in the modern world is comical, it’s also brilliantly simple and effective. This is a world where people hire human beings to articulate what they no longer have the ability to express, and so much implicitly hangs on how dependent and even lazy we have become in our relationships to technology.
Coming off a protracted and painful breakup that’s about to conclude in a finalized divorce, Theodore is lonely, depressed and not himself. He often cuts forlornly to the camera roll of memories of his soon-to-be ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara). While he has caring friends—one of them being a sympathetic neighbor Amy (Amy Adams) who programs video games by day and attempts to make documentaries on the side—Theodore is both still in mourning and longing for companionship. And so something unlocks in him when he purchases a new advanced operating system—the OS1—an Apple-esque, Siri-like device with a cognizant artificial intelligence programmed to grow and evolve. Named Samantha (rendered by the disembodied voice of Scarlett Johansson), Theodore is soon delighted and intrigued by how sophisticated and intuitive she is. Not only does she organize his life, writing his emails, notifying him of every detail like a built-in personal assistant (she speaks to him via an earpiece and sees the world via a mini-camera device he carries in his shirt pocket), Samantha is a constant companion who dulls the pain of Theodore’s bruising loneliness. Becoming a genuine friend, she even gives advice on his love-life (evinced via a blind date with a dysfunctional character played by Olivia Wilde) and, like many friendships, their bond begins to grow, evolve and slowly blossom into something more.
If there are issues to be found, it’s that anyone who’s been paying attention to Jonze’s work in the last few years may feel few surprises. That bittersweet longing and deep yearning for connection is a thread Jonze has been pulling at throughout “Where The Wild Things Are” and his romantic robots-in-love short “I’m Here.” All these disparate characters are trying their best to fit into a complex and scary modern world, and Theodore Twombly is, in many ways, no different. In truth, “I’m Here,” the aforementioned short starring Andrew Garfield, in many ways feels like a beta version test-run for the familiar ideas, themes and moods expressed in “Her.” That said, while it could be a dealbreaker for a small few, “Her” is easily Jonze’s most successful and fully realized film. As a self-contained piece of work, it’s immensely satisfying in its aims. While the cast is uniformly excellent, Joaquin Phoenix once again shows his versatility, going far beyond the brooding, dark characters he’s known for. His expressive range here is much more colorful and playful than audiences normally witness, and he creates a dimensional and credible Theodore. Amy Adams gets the most screen time of the physical ladies (and the “Perfect Mom” video game she works on is hysterically funny), but the movie's unsung ace in the hole is undoubtedly Scarlett Johansson, who creates a fascinating and multilayered character in Samantha, just using the dulcet sounds of her raspy voice.