Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from the film, "Her."
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Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a professional letter writer who pens beautiful love notes to spouses he’s never met. Yet he cannot fully open himself up to others.
His inability to emotionally connect led to the rocky conclusion of his marriage, though he’s reluctant to sign the divorce papers. And now he lives alone in a high-rise apartment with dining room chairs and no table, playing video games and day-dreaming about his ex, and having bizarre phone sex encounters with strangers equally desperate for human connection.
Theodore’s empty life is worthy of pity ... until he meets Samantha. And then almost overnight, everything changes.
What appears to be the synopsis to yet another romantic comedy is anything but in Her, writer-director Spike Jonze’s marvelous meditation on love, relationships, and humanity in a high-tech world. For starters, Samantha is an operating system, part of an advanced generation of Siri-like artificial intelligence that humans are connecting with in profound new ways. And as voiced by Scarlett Johansson, she’s positively irresistible.
Written and directed by Spike Jonze.
A Warner Brothers release, playing at Cinemark Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons.
Rated R for language, sexual content, and brief graphic nudity. Running time: 120 minutes.
Critic’s rating: ★★★★★
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, the voice of Scarlett Johansson.
The operating system, which communicates mostly through an earpiece, makes for the perfect companion. Samantha is funny, smart, and sexy; she’s secretarial, reminding him of appointments and keeping track of his emails; she’s also his understanding best friend, offering advice and giving his writing career a boost through a book publisher. As Theodore tells her early in their relationship, “I feel like I can say anything to you.”
Phoenix, often responding only to an unseen voice, delivers a beautiful and low-key performance as a man who discovers his humanity and how to live through a computer, while Johansson offers an equally Oscar-worthy turn, giving a warm and real presence to the invisible Samantha.
When the pair attempt their first sexual encounter, the film goes dark, allowing our imagination to take over. But it’s Phoenix and Johansson’s voices, rising together in ecstasy, that convince us that this moment — and their relationship — is real. Adding to the honesty of their encounter is the awkward morning after, as Theodore wonders about what just happened and how Samantha might react. It’s a spot-on and rather funny moment between a fictional man and computer that perfectly echoes reality.
Falling in love with a computer OS is not without complications, especially as Samantha evolves feelings and emotions of her own and struggles to understand them. And Jonze explores the joys and pitfalls of their relationship in obvious (the physical limitations) and not so obvious ways (jealousy from both parties), expanding what could have been a one-plot story in thoughtful and touching ways.
Theodore and Samantha go on dates. They socialize with another couple. They cuddle. But for Theodore, he can’t help but question whether this relationship is real. And so he asks his best human friend, Amy (Amy Adams), who is having her love problems of her own.
“I don’t know. I’m not in it,” she says. “... I’ve just come to realize that we’re only here briefly and while I’m here I want to allow myself joy. So [screw] it.”
Rounding out the cast are Chris Pratt as one of Theodore’s coworkers, Rooney Mara as Theodore’s ex, Catherine, and Olivia Wilde as a Theodore’s blind date, who learns she can’t compete with a computer. There’s also some funny voice work by Kristen Wiig as Theodore’s phone sex partner and an uncredited Jonze as a foul-mouthed, child-sized alien character in his video game.
Her’s art design, muted colors, and slightly chilly air is unmistakably Kubrick-esque. It’s also a story rife for a Stanley Kubrick dissection: a foreseeable future in which humans are losing their ability to connect with each other even as they bond with technology.
And while it’s not a leap to see Her as science-fiction allegory, a mirror to our current growing attachment to smart phones, tablets, and computers, what isn’t so easily apparent is the film’s more romantic notions about love. It could be argued that Jonze has conceived a rather clever twist on the dire “the future is now” genre, instead delivering an old-fashioned romantic comedy that’s masquerading as science fiction.
Amy Adams, left, and Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from "Her."
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Consider that Jonze’s marriage to another now-equally famous director (Sofia Coppola) dissolved more than a decade ago. Coppola made a film about their failed relationship, Lost in Translation. The film’s plot included a thinly veiled swipe at her ex-husband via its fictional director who has an affair with an actress, leaving his young wife — played, in strangely enough, by Johansson — abandoned and alone in another country.
By now, Jonze clearly isn’t interested in offering the “he said” version of their divorce. He’d rather explore bigger topics such as our necessity to be loved and what are we without it, and, more pointedly, what drives us to want something that often ends in heartbreak.
“I think anybody who falls in love is a freak,” Amy tells Theodore. “It’s a crazy thing to do. It’s kind of like a form of socially acceptable insanity.”
Her is Jonze laughing at while embracing the absurdity of love — human or otherwise.
Contact Kirk Baird at email@example.com or 419-724-6734.