It's no secret that we live in a world where lots of people care more about their gadgets than they do about each other. According to a recent survey, six percent of smartphone-owning New Yorkers have made an online purchase during a funeral. Is it really so strange, then, to wonder whether people might become romantically entangled with their favorite piece of technology some day in the not-too-distant future? Writer-director Spike Jonze's delicate, complicated sci-fi rom-com Her, about a lonely writer in love with his new operating system, explores this spooky idea with a compassionate, fairy-tale detachment. His film has as much to say about human beings' relationships to technology as it does about human beings' relationships with each other.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Theodore Twombly, a lonely divorcee who works for a website that creates fake handwritten letters for anniversaries and other special occasions. He spends most of his free time wandering through a Los Angeles landscape of splendid isolation where, thanks to their tiny and stylish portable electronic devices, everybody is always talking to somebody else, but nobody can find anybody they really want. The stress and heartache created by these constant mind/body and presence/absence oscillations are evident in every long take and tight close-up emphasizing Twombly's benumbed, bespectacled eyes and Ron Swanson moustache.
Twombly is gently awakened from his funk by "Samantha" (Scarlett Johansson), the first commercially available artificial intelligence program. After he installs her on his home computer, she spins into existence. Her first words are, "Hello, I'm here?" and the greatest source of joy in Her is listening in as Samantha figures out what "here" means.
Johansson's vocal performance in Her is lovely and mesmerizing; using only her husky voice, she delivers one of her very best performances, outshiningly strong, distinct, in-the-flesh supporting turns from fellow millennial crushes Olivia Wilde, Rooney Mara, and Amy Adams along the way. Early in the film, Samantha is warm, curious, and friendly in her banter with Twombly. Soon he's taking her everywhere. Twombly gradually grows so enamored of her companionship that, late one forlorn evening, he seduces her.
This powerfully erotic scene between Phoenix and Johansson is even more remarkable because their increasingly explicit banter continues on long after the screen fades to black. Samantha's ecstatic discovery of "physical" pleasure — whatever that means to her — and her breathless description of her first orgasm: "Everything else just disappeared ... and I loved it," is a smashing success when juxtaposed with Twombly's earlier, comically botched attempt at phone-sex with a stranger. These crucial scenes beg a really interesting question: Has Theodore finally found love, or has he just found some funky theoretical version of a perfect woman who couldn't possibly exist?
The rest of the film keeps this question in mind as it examines the emotional ramifications of falling in love with pure, bodiless consciousness. To its credit, Her's bittersweet resolution is both unexpected and deeply poetic. Its pastel-colored gauziness throughout suggests a Hallmark Channel movie written by Philip K. Dick. ■