Spike Jonze’s Her takes place in a clearly futuristic Los Angeles, a spotless, sparse playground for disconnected souls, filmed as a place that is perpetually sunny and disconcertingly sad. Through this shiny, metal-and-glass metropolis march hundreds of humans having the sort of disconcerting earbud conversations we’re becoming accustomed to now. These folks aren’t talking to a friend on the other side of the country, though; they’re talking to their operating systems.
Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix in a creepy mustache) is dragging his heels on finalizing his divorce from a pretty woman we see, for a time, only in affecting memories: she smiles at Theodore, holds someone else’s baby, breaks into a laugh. Her is dotted with memories that come in the form of silent flashbacks, scenes that are used to maximum effect. Theodore, at some point, was capable of being with another person, at least until their relationship shifted from smiles and collaboration to frowns and arguments had from different floors of the house.
Theodore’s present is rather different. He lives in a glassy high-rise and spends his days working as a letter writer, maintaining or crafting connections for strangers. His one friend, Amy (Amy Adams), is busy with a failing relationship of her own.
And then Theodore buys a new operating system. This one comes with a personality; it asks two or three questions about its buyer, then appears as a personality of its own, evolving second to second. Within minutes, Theodore’s OS has named herself Samantha (she reads a baby name book and picks that one) and charmed Theodore with her combination of curious child and eager-to-please assistant.
Where Her goes for Theodore is not the least bit surprising: He falls in love with his constant digital companion, letting her lead him out of that spacious apartment and back into the sunlight and the life of L.A. Where it goes for Samantha is much more curious. Jonze is interested in how technology aids and traps the modern-day lonely schlub, and that’s all well and good (his robot rebound girlfriend makes him a somewhat better person), but Her’s most intriguing parts come not from Theodore’s journey, but from Samantha’s. She’s moving faster than we can imagine, doing everything at once, making friends with reconstituted dead philosophers and experiencing in a very short time what humanity’s been working on for ages. If we could make artificial friends, if they were smart enough to appear like people, would they be too smart to stay that way? The palpable loneliness of Her is as much Samantha’s as it is Theodore’s: She may be hyper-intelligent, but she can never sit on a rooftop, watching the sun rise. If Jonze occasionally misses a beat — he mostly ignores the question of who programmed Samantha, and how much of her wide-eyed, eager-to-please personality is, at first, the projection of her probably male creators, and he presses the too-sweet soundtrack on us in every scene — by the end, Her’s sympathy is for everyone.
HER: Written and directed by Spike Jonze. Cinematography Hoyte van Hoytema. Editing, Jeff Buchanan and Eric Zumbrunnen. Music, Arcade Fire and Owen Pallett. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara and the voice of Scarlett Johansson. Warner Bros., 2013. R. 126 minutes. Three and a half stars.