"Her": An unforgettable man-machine love affair

Joaquin Phoenix plays a guy; Scarlett Johansson plays an O.S. Their romance might be the year's loveliest film

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published December 17, 2013 11:59PM (EST)

Joaquin Phoenix in "Her"      (Warner Bros. Pictures)
Joaquin Phoenix in "Her" (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Before we even get to Spike Jonze's melancholy, delicate and eerie love story "Her" — which isn't like any other movie you'll see this year, or ever — can we just agree to give Amy Adams all the acting awards and move on from there? Adams doesn't have a large part in "Her," playing a nerdy, lonely and misunderstood game designer named Amy who is old friends with Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), the movie's equally nerdy and lonely protagonist. But in ways that aren't obvious at first, Amy (and Adams' performance) is emotionally central to "Her," preventing this near-future fable of a human-machine love affair from drifting off into the digital ether. You can barely recognize her as the same actress who plays a self-invented sexpot con artist in David O. Russell's "American Hustle."

Jonze's sporadic and unprolific career as a feature-film director began with his genre-shaping collaborations with writer Charlie Kaufman, "Being John Malkovich" (1999) and "Adaptation" (2002), and then pretty much stopped. (His only picture between then and now is the off-kilter 2009 adaptation of "Where the Wild Things Are," co-written with Dave Eggers.) Here he takes a fascinating turn toward the personal and intimate with "Her," the first movie Jonze has written on his own. I guess you can't say that a film about a guy who falls in love with his operating system lacks a grabby high concept, but that never feels like the point of the picture, and any digital effects used in "Her" go toward creating a seamlessly convincing world, not toward attention-seeking moments of surrealism. Phoenix, who may be the modern screen's great enactor of awkwardness, is on-screen for nearly the whole movie as the wounded, stammering and profoundly uncertain Theo, a literary-minded guy who lives a literally vicarious existence. He works at a website I'm almost surprised doesn't really exist, composing "handwritten letters" to and from people he's never met. Love notes are his specialty.

As terrific as Adams is, another supporting actress in this movie gives a showier and more difficult performance, and will receive most of the love, despite the fact that we never see her on-screen. Scarlett Johansson provides the voice for an intuitive new form of artificial intelligence, an operating system called Samantha that is something like the extension of Apple's Siri to her logical extreme. Jonze's conception of the near future — no date is ever given, but I would say we're somewhere around 2040 — doesn't strive for full scientific or cultural coherence, but it's witty, lovely and a teensy bit frightening, like a dystopia that doesn't recognize itself as such. This is a quiet, actorly film that never tries to impress you with its hipness, but from a technical point of view it's also state-of-the-art. From the strange and dreadful future fashions designed by Casey Storm to the slightly disorienting color scheme to the melancholy score by Arcade Fire to Hoyte Van Hoytema's gorgeous cinematography, "Her" is an immersive universe that's sometimes faintly satirical but more often lovelorn and transcendent.

Amid the hazy, anonymous steel-and-glass towers of downtown L.A., where Theodore lives and works, any theoretical debate about whether a self-aware O.S. can possess personhood seems entirely irrelevant. From her first moments of existence, Johansson's Samantha names herself, begins to organize Theo's emails and tries to make sense of his disordered existence. (One could reasonably ask where and how she picked up such gender-coded behavior, but as is soon clear, Samantha learns quickly.) Theo has been moping for months after breaking up with his wife, a successful writer named Catherine (the reliably wonderful Rooney Mara), whom we largely see in tender flashbacks and then in a bittersweet lunch date, during which they sign divorce papers. Samantha, the helpful O.S., is a bit truculent about this lunch date, and finally admits why: "You're going to see her, and she's very beautiful, and she's so successful and you used to be in love with her. And she has a body."

Yes, Samantha and Theo are falling in love, even though only one of them is actually a human being, and the peculiar triumph of "Her" is that this seems only slightly odd. It's a bit like being gay, or having an interracial relationship, 20 years ago. (Or perhaps like having a polyamorous relationship today.) It strikes some people as not entirely normal; Catherine tells a waitress that Theo "is in love with his laptop," while he hotly explains that Samantha is an O.S., not a piece of hardware. But Amy, for example, is more open-minded. Everybody who falls in love is crazy, she tells Theo. We're only here for a short time, and we have to find happiness and delight any way we can. Amy is close gal-pals with her own O.S.; and she's heard about a woman who's having an affair with someone else's O.S. This isn't a movie about a social or technological apocalypse, but more about something much subtler and more convincing. We see people walking through the mall-like concourses of Los Angeles talking to their invisible companions all day long; this new generation of O.S. is producing a major social change almost no one is noticing.

"Her" does not posit the end of human-to-human relationships — indeed, Theo and Samantha go on a companionable double date to Catalina Island with a flesh-and-blood couple — nor is it about the day the robots take over the world. At least, it's not exactly about that. (With that, I will step away from spoiler territory.) It's a fairy tale that's partly drawn from ancient sources and partly from Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick, and it's just as much about the difficulty any kind of lovers have getting it right, as they grow toward each other and then away again, as it is about love in the age of technology. Samantha is almost a visitor from another world, an enchantress from the stars; she is both less than Theo wishes she were and more than he can ever be. This is a handcrafted, passionate and sometimes impossibly beautiful film that argues for both the past and the future, with a poetic spirit that's extremely rare in American cinema. Samantha leaves Theo with a book — an honest-to-God printed volume — and also with a Whitmanesque or Emersonian glimpse of the universe, the space between the snowflakes, the space between the stars, the soul we've never been able to find in human or machine.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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