“Her” takes place in hell: a not terribly distant future where people get 24-hour news and gossip over earpieces, sit at home in solitude to play holographic games on wall-sized viewers, express “heartfelt” feelings by hiring employees at BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com to compose sentiments to loved ones.
Or maybe that’s heaven to folks who no longer want face-to-face interaction with humans. But it doesn’t meet the need of Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), who works at that website and is about to be divorced from once-idealized Catherine (Rooney Mara).
He fills nondescript days with poetry, to which he signs clients’ names, and lonely nights with games or pornography, both visual and auditory. Then he buys a computer operating system (OS) that has been designed to respond to him intuitively, growing in knowledge and perception the longer he uses it. He names it Samantha (Scarlett Johansson supplies the voice) and, sure enough, begins to rely on her and then feel affection for her.
Unlike Catherine, Samantha never upbraids him or gets depressed. Unlike his friend Amy (Amy Adams), a would-be documentarian Theodore has known for most of his life, Samantha never seems unsure or weak-willed. Why would she? She assimilates information at top speed, reads his moods from the sound of his voice or the look on his face – the lens of his camera phone is her “eye” – and puts his interests above hers. Really, Theodore decides, the lack of a body isn’t an insurmountable obstacle to love.
Spike Jonze has directed three previous features: “Being John Malkovich, “Adaptation” and “Where the Wild Things Are.” (He’s written just one of those, “Wild Things.”) His theme is always the same: Someone flees stultifying reality for a world where he can direct events – or thinks he can, until they move beyond his control in a potentially destructive way.
This time, Jones shifts from pure fantasy to technology, which changes so fast that “Her” isn’t all that implausible to us today.
Theodore’s world doesn’t seem as creepy as the intrusive environment of “Minority Report,” where personalized commercials played to passers-by from storefronts. He lives not in the public eye but in anonymity; people don’t invade his privacy, and he seldom invites anyone past his personal barriers. (A blind date with a funny and smart but aggressive woman freaks him out.)
A cyber-sweetie meets his needs, and he’s not alone; as time passes, other characters admit that OS relationships have blossomed into attraction. Jonze asks whether this is healthy – as indeed it might be for some people – and what will happen if electronic beings grow beyond us. For them, lack of a physical form may be a blessing; they can mature without decay.
Liberation from her body seems to have freed Johansson as an actress; she gives the most complex performance of her career using only her smoky, flexible alto voice. Adams’ character looks a little wan by comparison, and she’s been saddled with an uptight loser boyfriend in the traditional Hollywood manner. Yet I’m not sure Jonze wants us to root for Amy and Theodore to become a romantic couple, though that’s the conventional end toward which most writers would point us.
Phoenix gives a performance as convincing as he did in “The Master,” and in exactly the opposite direction: gentle, meditative and cerebral, instead of angry, closed-minded and baffled. There’s a reason his picture appears on the movie’s poster above the big single word “Her:” Samantha represents the female side of Theodore, at least at first. The more he’s in touch with those elements of his personality, the more happy and complete a human being he can be.