I’m writing this review in Las Vegas, where 150,000 people have gathered to express their love of gadgets at the annual Consumer Electronics Show. It’s no surprise that in the new millennium we get a movie like “Her,” in which a lonely man falls in love with the disembodied voice of his computer operating system. What is surprising is the extent to which the computer returns the affections and the delicacy with which director Spike Jonze unfolds the relationship.
In the near future in Los Angeles, Theodore (the wonderful Joaquin Phoenix) is a ghost writer for a company called BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com. The name of the company is such a good joke because, like everything else in the movie, it mimics our own estrangement from nature.
In the midst of a divorce from the all-too-human Catherine (Rooney Mara), Theodore lives alone in a high-rise apartment and moves through an artificial reality as if he were on a conveyor belt.
When a commercial for a new computer operating system cuts through his fog, he orders the product. After he chooses the option to give it a female persona, the OS that calls itself Samantha (voice of Scarlett Johansson) quickly organizes his schedule, his in-box and his personal life.
That personal life becomes noticeably happier, as the voice in Theodore’s ubiquitous earpiece is more warm, supportive and forgiving than any flesh-and-blood human. (The co-worker played by Amy Adams comes close, but she’s already married.)
Eventually, Theodore’s relationship with Samantha resembles a romance. A lovely scene where she walks him blindfolded through a midway gets a borderline-creepy corollary when they cuddle on the beach via the video-screen billfold that is Samantha’s only physical manifestation. And then she proposes they hire a human surrogate to have sex with Theodore while Samantha pulls the puppet strings.
Puppetry was a theme in Jonze’s “Being John Malkovich,” which was written by Charlie Kaufman. “Her” was written by Jonze himself but is an equally surreal story about consciousness and connectedness. It wouldn’t work nearly as well without Phoenix, who is almost Chaplineseque in his sweetness, and Johansson, whose hoarse, sexy voice was dubbed over Samantha Morton’s after the shooting was finished.
Another invaluable co-star is the setting. Although it’s photographed in throwback Instagram hues, Theodore’s world is stitched together from pieces of LA and Shanghai to represent the metropolis of tomorrow. “Her” may be the most technologically astute movie since Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: a Space Odyssey.” And as the friendly ghost in the machine, Samantha is a more inviting companion for the great leap forward than HAL9000 could ever dream of being.
What “Her” • Four stars out of four • Rating R • Run time 2:06 • Content Strong language, sexual content and brief nudity
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