In Spike Jonze’s Her, Joaquin Phoenix plays a heartsick writer who falls madly, deeply in love with his operating system, an artificially intelligent being with the breathy, disembodied voice of Scarlett Johansson. To understand the gentle wonders Jonze works with that premise—and the breadth of rich, unexpected feeling he invests it with—it helps to begin with the movie he hasn’t made. For starters, Her is no cheap-shot comedy, scoring easy laughs off the pathetic romance between some loser and his laptop. Nor is it a cynical lecture about gadget addiction, portending a dark future in which everyone loves their devices more than the people around them. Finally—and this is bound to disappoint some—the film rarely resembles the kind of byzantine brain-bender Jonze used to make with his old collaborator, the mad genius Charlie Kaufman. (There’s a simplicity here that Kaufman, even at his most sentimental, wouldn’t know what to do with.)
So what is Her, exactly? It’s a melancholy comic fable about the here and now, thinly disguised as an outlandish vision of the there and later. It’s a distinctly modern love story—not simply because one of its lovers is a computer, but also because of the way the other one uses technology to stave off loneliness, talking to foul-mouthed video-game characters when he’d rather be finishing old arguments with his ex. And coming from Jonze, the soulful eccentric who made Being John Malkovich, the movie is also an intimate departure, maybe even a personal one. Four films into a sterling career, the director’s made his most beguiling, profoundly human work yet.
Shot in both Shanghai and Los Angeles, Her is set solely in the latter city, re-envisioned as a kind of multinational metropolis where the men wear (fashionable?) high-waist pants and everyone uses an underground subway system to commute to work. (Rapid transit in L.A.? Talk about a utopian future!) Here, bespectacled sad-sack Theodore (Phoenix) works at a company called Beautiful Handwritten Letters, composing eloquent mash notes for strangers. Jonze begins the film with a bait-and-switch, opening on Theodore’s seemingly heartfelt address to an object of affection, only to reveal he’s simply dictating to his computer. The scene doesn’t just tease an eventual man-machine courtship; it also foregrounds the hero’s fear of artificial emotions—his very 21st-century paranoia that the sentiments he has, many of them fed through a technological filter, are faint echoes of what he used to feel.
Not that anyone could accuse Her of faking it. The film oozes with feeling, its empathy for lonely, damaged romantics expressed through the intimacy of its gorgeous compositions and the buzzing ache of its Arcade Fire soundtrack. (Forget Reflektor—this is the band’s true triumph of 2013.) Casting, however, may be the essential component. It’s a strange thing to say about someone who devoted a year of his life to a performance-art prank, but Joaquin Phoenix has become one of the most emotionally honest actors in Hollywood. A year after The Master, he’s softened the alien intensity he brought to Freddie Quell, channeling that energy into a less volatile specimen of wounded American maleness. More often than not, Jonze shoots Phoenix in tight, invasive close-up, soaking in the waves of vulnerability the actor effortlessly unleashes. It’s a tremendous performance, one that rescues this character—a mess of insecurities, regrets, and desires—from the walking pity party he could have been.
Once Theodore boots up his future dream girl, the operating system that will steal his heart, Phoenix’s commitment becomes crucial: Jonze’s completely sincere approach to the romance would mean nothing were it not for the investment of his leading man—or, for that matter, the sheer personality of his leading woman. At first, it’s hard not to wonder if “Samantha,” with her bubbly good humor and constant encouragement, is simply a marvel of modern programming, designed to flatter the ego of her owner. Are her emotions just scarily convincing replicas of the real thing? Eventually, Samantha is asking that question herself—obsessing over it, really—and it becomes clear Jonze takes her sentience at face value. Creating a fully fleshed character—the most neurotically alive A.I. since A.I.—with nothing but her disembodied voice, Johansson proves yet again that she’s much more than the sex symbol she’s often reduced to. Just as Theodore falls for Samantha’s mind, Phoenix connects with his physically absent co-star, the two using their chemistry to bring the character to vibrant life.
Her achieves a tricky balancing act, finding both humor and deep, disarming poignancy in the Theodore-Samantha story. When the two first consummate their feelings, after a long, revealing conversation in Theodore’s bed, Jonze practically dares the audience not to be moved by their passionate connection. Yet he also sees the comic side of their morning-after awkwardness, earning laughs from the way Theodore attempts to weasel his way out of committing to his unlikely bedfellow. Jonze takes the relationship seriously, and he’s not the only one: Confounding expectations further, Her presents a world surprisingly accepting of this unnatural pairing; when Theodore gives platonic bestie Amy (Amy Adams) the news, she responds with fascination, not disgust. She’s just happy he’s found someone.
But is it a “real” relationship? Or is Theodore’s soon-to-be ex-wife (Rooney Mara), glimpsed largely in tender, evocative flashbacks, correct to assume that her husband prefers an impossible woman to an actual one? That’s one of the grand mysteries of the movie, which treats the landscape of human need—the hows and whys of falling in love, of finding happiness—like an alien world it can’t wait to explore. Such curiosity aligns Her with the best science fiction; as cosmetically and technologically plausible as its future looks, the film’s true insight is reserved for the present. To that end, Samantha is both character and metaphor, her inhuman leaps in knowledge symbolic of the emotional growth—experienced by one lover but not the other—that sometimes causes problems in a relationship. How can Theodore, trapped by his human hang-ups, hope to keep a partner who’s rapidly, dramatically changing?
Presumptuous though it might be to attribute personal meaning to the movie, Her can’t help but inspire biographical speculation. Working for the first time without a co-writer, Jonze has made a spiritual cousin to his radical, daringly downbeat adaptation of Where The Wild Things Are—which is to say, another film about divorce from a divorcee, this one starring a character still trying to process the role his shortcomings played in the death of his marriage. Is Theodore’s job, which entails putting himself in the emotional shoes of strangers, so different from that of a filmmaker? Offering its protagonist the belated opportunity to apologize, and to use his gift for words to finally reveal himself, the film takes on the quality of a confession. Whether Jonze built Her from his own history or invented it from scratch, it feels like a direct portal into his beating, bleeding heart. No visit to the seventh-and-a-half floor required.