Joaquin Phoenix plays a lonely introvert who falls in love with the voice in his computer in Her, written and directed by Being John Malkovich helmer Spike Jonze. The film’s curious premise reminded me immediately of the terrific Ryan Gosling starrer Lars and the Real Girl, in which a socially awkward misfit begins a relationship with an inflatable doll. Like that film, Her is a very human story about our need for connection.
Set in the near future, the film stars Phoenix as Theodore Twombly, a sensitive, damaged soul, who has a job composing letters on behalf of people who’re too busy to write to their loved ones. Heartbroken from his wife (Rooney Mara) having left him, and lonely, Theodore spends his evenings alone in his high-rise apartment, immersed in videogames. But all that changes when he installs a new operating system in his computer. Voiced with real passion and seduction by Scarlett Johansson, this artificially intelligent entity calls herself Samantha. She goes from organizing Theodore’s emails and cleaning up his hard drive to becoming his confidante, and finally his lover.
The film’s sheer genius lies in the manner in which it takes what’s essentially a sci-fi premise, and adapts it smoothly and convincingly to the ups and downs of a romantic relationship. From the excitement of getting to know each other, to petty arguments, to the pain of drifting apart, Theodore and Samantha’s arc is nicely typical of a ‘normal’ relationship.
Indeed the film truly works because it doesn’t use its central conceit as a gimmick. Theodore’s not the only person in a relationship with an OS, and while his ex is snide about it, a colleague and his girlfriend suggest that they go out on a double date. That makes for a lovely scene, as does one in which we see Theodore taking his cell phone on a date to the beach, whispering sweet nothings into the microphone. But Jonze stretches his idea a little thin when he gives us a scene in which Samantha recruits a surrogate to have sex with Theodore on her behalf, speaking to him through an earpiece. It’s an interesting point the filmmaker wants to make – about the connection between sexual and emotional intimacy – but the scene itself comes off as creepy. The film too feels a tad stretched, even as Theodore and Samantha’s relationship slips into a predictable groove of sorts.
Yet these are minor quibbles in an otherwise sublimely original film that is at once sad and humorous. Phoenix, first-rate as Theodore, has a winning chemistry with Johansson’s Samantha, who is only heard, never seen. Amy Adams too puts in a credible turn as his supportive, non-judgmental best friend.
Crisply shot in bright hues, and hinting at a technologically-infused future, this is ultimately a deeply moving film about a romance that feels painfully authentic. I’m going with four out of five for Her. Love, after all, is love…whether your partner is made of flesh and blood, or coding, or rubber like that doll in the Ryan Gosling film.