'Her': Alone with the lovely voice in his computer

Joaquin Phoenix's character develops a relationship with the voice of his computer's operating system. Warner Bros. Pictures.

In Her, Spike Jonze's sad, funny, and quietly alarming romance, Joaquin Phoenix plays a guy named Theodore. The time is the near-future, the place is Los Angeles, and Theodore's job is to pen notes and letters - intimate declarations of love, of loss - for people who are too busy to do it themselves. The company is called beautifulhandwrittenletters.com, and Theodore sits at his cubicle and fine-tunes the prose, based on a form submitted by his clients. Check and see if the domain name is taken - it's an idea whose time has come.

The irony in Theodore's life, and in Jonze's gentle, daring film, is that while Theodore can express emotions (albeit slick, Hallmark Cards-y ones) on his monitor at work, he's incapable of getting those feelings out in his own relationships.

That's one reason his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), has left him, and why she's ready with divorce papers to sign. Theodore has a friend, Amy (Amy Adams, so far removed from her American Hustle scam artist that it's almost a shock to see her). They share the elevator in the building where they both live, and share candid conversation, too.

But, essentially, Theodore is alone - with his ukulele, his video games, and, after he buys a new operating system for his computer, with Samantha. She is the disembodied voice (of Scarlett Johansson) who comes with OS1 - advertised as the first operating system with a consciousness.

At first, Samantha functions like a virtual personal assistant, helping Theodore with his workload, his appointments, his playlists. But soon, as they get to know each other, the talk gets more, well, heartfelt. Samantha is programmed for all manner of functions, but she's still new, unformed, so it takes some time (not much, though - she's a quick study) to catch the nuances, to pick up the melancholy in Theodore's voice, to feel his hurt.

But feel it she does. And soon she and Theodore are "dating." He'll tuck his nifty cigarette case-like device in his breast pocket with the camera lens facing out, pop the ear bud in, and take her for a stroll around town, on a boat ride, down to the beach. He couldn't be happier.

Or could he?

With his watery eyes and slightly waddling gait, his cartoonish mustache and high-waisted pants, Phoenix's Theodore has an air of Charlie Chaplin, or Buster Keaton, about him. In fact, much like Chaplin's silent classic Modern Times, which can be read as a cautionary tale about the dangers of the Industrial Age, Jonze's film can be seen as a warning about the perils and pitfalls of our technological era. The whole world is plugged in, logged on. So why is there so much disconnect?

Phoenix's performance is a revelation - he bares Theodore's soul even as Theodore himself is afraid to. In production, Phoenix did his scenes with the actress Samantha Morton off camera, reading the lines of the sentient OS. But as Jonze began to piece his film together, the director decided he needed a different voice. Enter Johansson, whose presence is palpable beyond the words she speaks.

Her imagines a world of comfort, convenience, cool. (The film is production-design heaven.) The clothes have a natural-fiber vibe - reds and yellows, earth tones. The eyeglasses are retro, the satchels probably made of vegan leather. Apartments are cozy but uncluttered. So much of life is carried on in one's head, or on the computer, or the phone, that vanity hardly seems necessary.

Jonze is playing with hefty concepts here: loneliness, longing, the nature of consciousness, the need for human connection - and, increasingly, the fear of it. Her is a wistful, wonderful meditation on where we are and where we might be going. And where this Theodore Twombly fellow might be going, too.









Directed by Spike Jonze. With Laura Meadows, Samantha Morton, Joaquin Phoenix, Portia Doubleday, Olivia Wilde, Rooney Mara, Caroline Jaden Stussi, Amy Adams. Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures.

Running time: 2 hours, 0 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for language, sexual content and brief graphic nudity).