By Gary Dowell
A heartbreaking, quirky, and ultimately inspiring look at love in the Information Age, Spike Jonze’s Her is an unconventional romantic comedy that offers a profound and incredibly insightful meditation on relationships in a world changing faster than we can comprehend.
Joaquin Phoenix delivers one of his most nuanced performances as Theodore, a lost soul living in a near-future Los Angeles that is more Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind than Blade Runner, where he works as a professional Cyrano de Bergerac at a company called BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com writing heartfelt correspondence for other people. A recent divorcee with a static personal life, Theodore lives vicariously through the people he writes love letters for, seeking personal connections through video games and anonymous phone sex.
That all changes dramatically when he installs a new operating system, an artificial intelligence named Samantha (perfectly voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Samantha is no ordinary software; she’s warm, personable, insightful, intelligent, witty, charming, and supportive, and the two click instantly. It’s love at first upload.
One of the oddest of odd couples, the unorthodox nature of which makes the two both intriguing and, wel, believable. Samantha is with Theodore everywhere he goes, chatting with him through his earpiece and observing the world from the handheld device tucked in his shirt pocket. Hers is the first voice he hears in the morning and the last he hears at night; they even have a sex life (or sorts). As their relationship evolves, so does Samantha; growing and learning, becoming self-aware, discovering her own desires and needs. They experience the usual ups and downs of two people in a relationship, as well as a few unexpected ones.
Phoenix delivers a tender, disarming, and oddly heroic performance as an everyman facing loneliness and middle age in a disconnected future. When Theodore contemplates out loud “I sometimes wonder, what if I’ve felt everything I’m ever going to feel?” in a scene that highlights his vulnerability, Phoenix delivers the line with a sincerity that projects soulfulness rather than morbid navel gazing. Johansson also catches us off-guard, creating a fully formed character with only her voice and zero affectation. Though the two leads are never on-screen together, they generate a surprising level of chemistry.
Since his early days shooting memorable music videos for the Beastie Boys, Björk, and Fatboy Slim, Jonze has always shown a remarkable talent for visual expression, one that has grown more and more subtle and effective over the years. His vision of the future is a surprisingly — and refreshingly — warm cityscape of glass and steel, crafted from exteriors shot in L.A. and Shanghai punctuated with color and soft lighting, decorated with retro touches such as burnished wood furniture, earth-tone clothing, and portable electronics than resemble vintage cigarette cases. It’s a cozy setting for his unorthodox love story.
More important is the ingenuity with which Jonze tells his story, sidestepping glib comedy in favor of something more true to life and bringing even more (and more focused) philosophical weight to story than he did with his debut film, Being John Malkovich. In the process he brings forth an intriguing question: What makes love real — the one you love, or the way you love them?