With a breathtaking sense of adventure, Jonze has, as he did with “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation,” turned cinema on its head to see what falls out.
The film bears some resemblance to Michael Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” in its examination of the roles of memory and longing in human intimacy. The question raised here — well, many questions get raised but this is the overriding one — is whether as we move into the virtual age a relationship with a real human being is as sustainable as one with an electronic being.
The writer-director sets his tale in a soulless downtown Los Angeles in the very near future (nearer than you might care to acknowledge), where worker bees work and live in glass high rises with sterile interiors and little to connect one another.
(Filming was done in China too, but I couldn’t detect any Asian atmosphere, which perhaps goes to show how Western Urban so much of development-crazed China has become.)
There’s a scene well into the movie where pedestrians stroll on elevated walkways, avoiding eye contact with anyone else while in immersed in deep conversations with small earpieces. That looks uncomfortably like right now, not any near future.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, who makes his living working for the online service, BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, where he and others write touching, personal letters for people who can’t be bothered to do so themselves. He’s very good at it.
In a funk over a breakup with his wife (Rooney Mara), he whiles away his idle time with a life-sized 3D video game and has amusing phone sex with an anonymous partner, neither of which is completely satisfying.
He then signs up for a new computer operating system, OS1, that guarantees to be more than an operating system — “It’s a consciousness,” it promises.
This consciousness comes with a name: She calls herself Samantha and starts “evolving” the moment activated. Soon she is almost inside Theodore’s head albeit a consciousness he can turn off whenever he likes.
She is cracking jokes, making wry observations, offering sensitive advise and, frankly, being a flirt. Theodore loves it. Or rather her — Samantha.
Soon enough, he has let her take control of his life to his enormous satisfaction. He no longer needs video games or real women. As if to prove this point, a blind date with a seemingly terrific young woman (a vivacious Olivia Wilde) goes badly awry.
People question him: “You’re dating your computer?” But he doesn’t mind. They don’t know Samantha.
So many question arise here: Does this virtual being bring greater fulfillment than a flesh-and-blood one? Does a vocal relationship work better since it dispenses with the sometimes annoying reality of a physical being?
Is the memory of love (such as with his wife) simply a story we tell ourselves? Can the search for love be re-directed with such ease?
The writer-director offers no answers; nor should he. It’s enough that he raises these questions.
Following an overacted and self-conscious performance at this time last year in “The Master,” Phoenix more than redeems himself here as a lanky, lovable, sweet-natured guy that embraces both cool and nerd.
He is on camera, and in mostly close shots at that, nearly the entire movie. He easily convinces you he is part of a two-way conversation even though no one else is visible.
For one thing, Scarlett Johansson is so vividly alive as the voice of Samantha that you almost forget you never actually see her. She gets into your head as much as she does Theodore’s. She’s adorable. But was she programmed to be so?
Among the cast is Amy Adams as a longtime friend of Theodore who is going through her own romantic breakup. Jonze never tips his hand whether he is setting her up as a real-life alternative to Samantha for his protagonist or just someone on a parallel track.
It doesn’t matter since like all the points in this movie, you make them for yourself; the movie never dictates how you should feel.
“Her” can’t quite sustain its amazing juggling act into the third act. This is a little protracted and never arrives at any smashing conclusion. No matter. This new take on loneliness and a desire to overcome it comes from such a fresh angle that your head is already spinning by the time the movie begins to peter out.
Jonze’s fourth directorial feature (and first from his own screenplay) is a funny, funky, surprisingly romantic and charming film. Its portrait of artificial intelligence is not the cautionary tale of old featuring, say, a computer named HAL or the androids as in “Blade Runner.”
Indeed as the phone sex illustrates, Theodore’s relationship with his computer isn’t any worse or even different from phone sex. It’s still a relationship with a disembodied voice.
Nothing is asked in return. Theo’s only commitment is to turn her on although he does allow her to “watch” him sleep at times. Nothing feels sinister or “off” in any of this, which is the reason why their date to the Venice Beach feels so freewheeling, so spirit-of-the-moment.
Like it or not, “Her” is “A Man and a Woman” for the 21st century.
Opens: December 18, 2013 (Warner Bros.)
Production company: Annapurna Pictures
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Chris Pratt, Matt Letscher, Portia Doubleday, Scarlett Johansson
Director/screenwriter: Spike Jonze
Producers: Megan Ellison, Spike Jonze, Vincent Landay
Executive producers: Daniel Lupi, Natalie Farrey, Chelsea Barnard
Director of photography: Hoyte Van Hoytema
Production designer: K.K. Barrett
Music: Arcade Fire
Costume designer: Casey Storm
Editors: Eric Zumbrunnen, Jeff Buchanan
R rating, 126 minutes