“I think I have felt everything I’m going to feel,” says Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), the protagonist of Her, “and from here on out I’m never going to feel anything new.” Theodore, who is in a deep depression but doesn’t realize it, is getting ready to finalize his divorce with his wife (Rooney Mara), who was once vibrant and happy and lively but over the years has grown resentful and sullen and accuses her husband of pulling away from her emotionally.
Theodore is befuddled — he clearly still loves her — but he’s the sort of person who can only share so much of himself before pulling away. At work, where he writes beautiful letters to strangers wishing them happy birthdays and anniversaries, he’s capable of being expressive and eloquent and thoughtful.
People, though, give him trouble. When a new operating system hits the market promising a sentient artificial intelligence that will grow and learn with time, he buys one. Her name is Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), and at first she’s everything Theodore needs. They talk via a small earpiece, and she’s always there to listen and comfort him, make him laugh. They can even go out on dates using a little camera that lets Samantha see everything Theodore sees. There are no secrets between them — Samantha can read his emails and contacts — and as their relationship deepens, so does her intelligence. “You helped me discover my ability to want,” Samantha tells him. Eventually — inevitably — sex enters the picture.
Her was written and directed by Spike Jonze, who specializes in taking high-concept premises (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Where the Wild Things Are) and turning them into thoughtful meditations on human relationships. Her depicts a future L.A. as a clean and gleaming city filled with smooth surfaces and bright colors (Theodore is fond of wearing high-waisted pants and orange shirts). But people walk around connected to devices (think next-gen cellphones) that keep them alienated from each other — it’s an empty paradise. When Theodore’s friend (Amy Adams) sets him up on a blind date (Olivia Wilde), the results are disastrous. It’s much easier for him to drop any facades and come home to Samantha, who is always there and understands him better than anyone.
Eventually, though, as Samantha grows and matures, she, too, has needs. Her shares a lot of themes with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, another story about the difficulty of moving on from relationships that once seemed destined to last forever, and Phoenix, in a restrained performance radically different from his volcanic turn in The Master, conveys Theodore’s inner loneliness and yearning with a remarkable subtlety. His eyes say what he can’t. Jonze often frames Theodore in wide open spaces (even his apartment dwarfs him), and although the story sounds like science-fiction, the technological trappings are just window dressing. “I think anybody who falls in love is a freak,” Adams says at one point. “It’s a kind of socially acceptable insanity.” Her argues that sometimes, crazy can be wonderful.
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson (voice only), Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt.
Writer-director: Spike Jonze.
Producers: Megan Ellison, Spike Jonze, Vincent Landay.
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 126 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual situations, brief nudity, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.