Upon hearing the premise of Spike Jonze’s “Her” — the story of a man who falls in love with an operating system — one may write it off as a surrealist dystopian gimmick. Quite the opposite. The wildly talented writer/director has already finessed such absurdist premises from Charlie Kaufman into wonderful works of art from “Being John Malkovich” to “Adaptation.” In his directorial debut, Jonze adapated Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” into a bold reimagining of childhood. Now in his fourth feature, he has given us a startling new way to look at the world. It’s an elegiac meditation on relationships and how we live today, and it’s brilliant.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a smart and kind but desperately lonely man who’s still reeling from a break-up with his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), a year later. He lives in the not-so-distant future in Los Angeles, a very nonsleek and tactile-looking future, an aesthetic that could only be thought up by Spike Jonze. Theodore works for a company that composes hand-written letters to loved ones, but they are written by the company’s employees. So, he spends his days diving into the personal lives of others, trying his best to avoid his own. It’s the first sign of the large emotional disconnect this society experiences, and it’s not so far from our own reality.
Consider the citizens walking around with what look like hearing aids plugged into their ears, talking to themselves; or, rather, talking to their operating system (OS). Google Glass, anyone? In this world, a new version has just been released, OS 1, with an ever-adapting personality that suits the user’s every need. Theodore gets his own and is introduced to the self-named Samantha. “Hello, I am here,” she says into the darkness of Theodore’s living room. And so it begins.
Samantha is, almost inevitably, voiced by Scarlett Johansson whose smoky, girl-next-door demeanor gives the disembodied voice a necessary physicality throughout the blossoming of her and Theodore’s relationship. What starts off quirky and cute transforms into a romance that is totally serious and, amazingly enough, believable and true. Johansson is soulful and charming in the completely off-screen role, while Phoenix gives a performance in pure isolation that is as potent as, if not more than, the widely-acclaimed Sandra Bullock in “Gravity” and Robert Redford in “All Is Lost.”
Theodore does have human connection in his life. His co-worker Paul (Chris Pratt) is in a happy human relationship while his friend Amy (Amy Adams, resembling a frizzy-haired Cameron Diaz from “Being John Malkovich”), is in an unsatisfied human relationship. Theodore eventually has the confidence to announce to them that, yes, he is dating his OS. Enchanting, beautiful and deeply sad — aided greatly by a score from Arcade Fire, featuring the last track “Supersymmetry” off their new album — the film isn’t about an OS but about what such a relationship does to the human condition.
“Her” begins to lose shape and momentum in its third act, but that’s also when the film’s message starts to seep in. How do we reach out to find human connection? We’re left wondering about the possibility of true love and whether we are forever caught up in ourselves to honestly connect to another person. And in the end, the absence of all distraction — our computers, technology, our highly-advanced operating systems — might allow us to finally see what’s right in front of us.