The king of quirky, Spike Jonze, finds something profound in his profoundly simple sci-fi romance "Her."
A "How I Met Your OS (operating system)" comedy, "Her" is a search for the essence of what we really want out of love, separating the physical from the psycho-spiritual meeting of the minds. An austere film of heartache and self-assessment, it has an aching loneliness about it that only a movie about a man who falls in love with a sentient computer-generated voice and mind could manage.
Joaquin Phoenix is Theodore, a professional love letter writer of the not-that-distant future. He is a true romantic and is good at his job -- crafting computer-generated "hand-written" notes that aid the lovelorn in their courtships. But Theodore is deflated and depressed and alone. He's going through a divorce.
Smart phones have become brilliant phones in this future, connecting Theodore to all manner of media by his compact, wallet-sized companion. Can't sleep? Anonymous, random phone-sex chat is but a voice command away.
Then he downloads a new "intuitive entity," an OS that is a learning, empathetic, all-knowing companion. "Samantha," unlike his testy, brittle ex-wife (Rooney Mara), "gets" him. In an instant. She can learn all she needs to know from listening to his voice, and prowling through his hard drive.
Jonze ("Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation") cast the voice actors in this movie of a world of disembodied voices with extraordinary care (you'll recognize Brian Cox), none more than his "Samantha." Scarlett Johansson's scratchy, sexy, playful voice is used to great effect as we listen to this machine-generated person learn about Theodore, sympathize with him and fall in love with him. And Phoenix, doing almost all his scenes solo, lets us believe that this crazy notion -- which is really just a short extrapolation from where our plugged-in and tuned-out society is now -- is real. Theodore falls for Samantha. Hard.
Theodore makes the leap from "I can't believe I'm having this conversation with my computer" to hurting Samantha's feelings. Because Samantha has feelings.
Jonze lets us laugh at the idea of this in a lot of ways, because on first blush, it's ridiculous. But as vulnerable Theodore botches a blind date (Olivia Wilde) simply because he's too damaged to let good things happen, the sensitivity of "Her" steps forward.
The fashions are dress-down funky -- Hush Puppies have won the shoe wars. But it's no great leap to see legions of isolated commuters listening or chattering away, seemingly to themselves, ear-buds plugged in, human race tuned out. We're living in that world now.
And as Theodore and then others around him (Amy Adams and the omnipresent Chris Pratt play friends) accept this "relationship," you start to wonder just which tech companies are working on this final social frontier. Is there an OS that can be a balm to a lonely world?
And this being a romance, you imagine where it can go or how it might end, and Jonze brilliantly ponders the soon-to-be-ponderable:
Is it better to have loved and lost than never to have logged on at all?
3.5 stars (Grade: A-minus)
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, the voice of Scarlett Johansson
Written and directed by Spike Jonze. A Warner Brothers release
Running time: 2:00
MPAA rating: R for language, sexual content and brief graphic nudity