'Her,' which examines love and technology, is incredibly timely

'Her' stars Joaquin Phoenix as a man who falls in love with a computer operating system.

By , Film critic

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    'Her' stars Joaquin Phoenix.
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If ever there was a romantic scenario for our time, it’s “Her.” Set in a slightly futuristic Los Angeles, it’s about Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely guy who finds love with a personalized computer operating system.

Theodore, soft-spoken, with a bushy moustache, writes love letters for clients of the company “Beautiful Handwritten Letters,” although he himself is lovelorn. He pines for his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), from whom he is separated, and dreads their imminent divorce. When he signs up for this latest in computer breakthroughs, the OS1, what he really is looking for is companionship. And boy, does he get it.

Samantha, as she calls herself, is more than a higher-level version of Siri. She’s a consciousness, and, before long, a species of lover. As voiced by Scarlett Johansson, Samantha is chipper and smoky-voiced – a combination helpmate and soul mate and cybervamp. Theodore, the professional romantic, is smitten.

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Spike Jonze, who wrote and directed, is one of the most lyrically fanciful and cockeyed filmmakers around. “Being John Malkovich,” in which a puppeteer discovers a portal into the actor’s mind, and “Adaptation,” about the labyrinthine curlicues of literary creation, were screwball fantasias that managed to plug into the zeitgeist big time. Both scripted by Charlie Kaufman, they spoke about fame and celebrity in new ways.

“Her” is not as sly or knockabout as those movies. It’s unabashedly amorous – a fabulist’s love letter to love. But the romance creeps up on you, just as it does with Theodore. Jonze lets the story play out in a kind of woozy, tentative dreamtime that seems magically right for this material. (Phoenix’s slow-turned performance seems magically right, too). He doesn’t push the futurism, either. It’s as if we’re looking ahead to the present. One of the pleasant surprises here is that, in contrast to most futuristic movies, the computer beings are as touchingly confused as the humans.

Before he “meets” Samantha, Theodore spends his nights alone in his cryptlike aerie overlooking the twinkly cityscape (in reality a melange of L.A. and Shanghai). He bides him time playing 3-D holographic computer games with an avatar who acts like a foul-mouthed Pillsbury Dough Boy; he inserts his ear buds and summons phone sex partners. By the time Samantha enters his life, he is more than primed for renewal.

His best friend, Amy (Amy Adams), who is herself going through relationship woes, is nonjudgmental about Theodore’s newfound love. Is it a real relationship, he wants to know? “I don’t know,” she answers. “We’re just here briefly.” This may sound like an abdication – an admission that, in our worldly cyberspace, we are so cut off from human connection that the only tenderness we can expect is from cyborgs.

But it’s more than that: Jonze is a free-form romantic who understands that love is where you find it. Theodore’s love for Samantha might seem pathetic – his soon-to-be-ex-wife, who thinks Theodore is “afraid of the challenges of the real,” certainly thinks so – and yet it’s also noble. He’s willing to extend himself to this woman, this voice, because she makes him feel better than anybody else. She understands him and, despite first impressions, he is not easy to understand.

For a while, he thinks he also undestands her, but one of the special features of the OS1 system is that its operants evolve emotionally and intellectually as they gain experience. “Just like you,” she proudly announces to Theodore. All of the conundrums of human relationships are mimicked here, the honeymoon phase, the walking-on-air interludes, and, of course, the jealousies and suspicions. (It doesn’t help that Samantha can read thousands of Theodore’s stored e-mails in a glance.) About her evolution, she asks herself, “Do I feel this way or is it just programming?”

It’s a measure of Jonze’s grace as a filmmaker that scenes that might have come across as satiric or smarmy are instead deeply resonant. Take, for example, the sequence in which Samantha calls up a flesh-and-blood woman named Isabella (Portia Doubleday) to service Theodore in his apartment. Isabella is, in effect, an anthropomorphic surrogate for Samantha, and Theodore at first plays along. But the fantasy is too abstract for him, and, profusely apologetic, he rebuffs Isabella, who is tearful not so much because she is rejected but because she genuinely wanted to make these two lovers wholly conjoined. She’s a romantic, too.

The wistfulness in this movie is large-souled. Theodore may worry that his love for Samantha makes him a freak, but Amy knows that “anybody who loves is a freak.” All this may sound touchy-feely in the worst way, but Jonze is trying to get at how we seek romantic connection in this brave (or not so brave) new world. Like Theodore, he risks looking foolish.

But “Her” is no nerd nirvana. Finally, it is a film about people. Theodore’s ardor for Samantha is fraught from the start, but it enables him in the end to come to terms with his lingering love for Catherine – the real romance, as we see in flashbacks, of his life. It is she who made him who he is, and he is supremely grateful for that. If it takes a computer to make us feel human, so be it. Grade: A (Rated R for language, sexual content and brief graphic nudity.)

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