In Spike Jonze’s “Her,” Theodore and Samantha experience all the thrills, discoveries and distractions of a new romance. They stay up all night talking. They giggle at each other’s corny jokes. He can’t stop thinking about Samantha — at work, during his commute, when talking with friends — and smiling.
It’s all a proper portrait of a relationship in its early stages, except for one tiny detail. Samantha is the disembodied voice of Theodore’s computer operating system, an artificial-intelligence (AI) upgrade that comes with an unexpected feature: the ability to fall in love, and to inspire that feeling from its human “owner” in return.
This kind of oddball what-if scenario is familiar territory for Jonze, the occasional auteur whose three prior films — “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation” and “Where the Wild Things Are” — each explored defiantly fantastic circumstances. The common thread in these movies is their creator’s determination to consider the full implications of his imagined worlds, and “Her” is no exception. This thoughtful, nuanced romance is also a knowing exploration of our culture’s obsessive connection with technology. It’s funny and melancholy by turns, and an understated late-season gem.
The film opens in an unspecified near future, as a glum Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is moping through life after his wife has left him. He’s a professional ghostwriter of other people’s intimate messages (for a company called BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com), so we can tell he’s not the only member of this sci-fi society who’s most comfortable with some distance between him and other human beings.
Then he upgrades his computer software, and everything changes — sort of. A routine series of user-profile questions results in the creation of Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), and suddenly Theodore has a constant companion in his Bluetooth earpiece: a frank, flirty, funny and undeniably sultry personality whose only flaw seems to be the lack of a body. Their relationship moves quickly from just friends to much more, but it’s made clear that Theodore isn’t experiencing a one-sided illusion. Rather, Samantha’s AI origins have created a true independent soul capable of keeping up one half of an admittedly offbeat couple.
“Her” is anchored by a remarkable performance by Phoenix as Theodore, a sad fellow prone to long walks while aching for something to fill the hole left by his estranged partner (played in flashbacks by Rooney Mara). He’s utterly convincing in a role that requires him to effectively talk to himself on screen for long stretches, while still showing us the gradual opening of his heart to Samantha. And while the casting of Johansson could be thought of as something of a cheat — it’s hard not to visualize the bombshell actress when we hear Samantha’s voice, thereby lessening the weirdness of Theodore’s situation — she fully commits to her role, giving Samantha a complex emotional range that enriches the film.
From the eye-catching visual designs to the fundamental path of Theodore and Samantha’s relationship, every aspect of “Her” bears the painstaking care and attention to detail that distinguishes Jonze’s resume. See this movie with someone you love — preferably a human someone, but that’s up to you.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson and Rooney Mara. Written and directed by Spike Jonze. Rated R (under 17 not admitted without parent), for language and implied sexual situations. Rating: 10 out of 10
Erich Van Dussen’s film reviews have been featured in newspapers and magazines, on the radio, and online for more than 20 years. He lives in the Finger Lakes region.