Before even knowing the premise of the film, Her announces itself as something completely different with the descriptor "a Spike Jonze love story." Jonze, the acclaimed director of Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Where the Wild Things Are, has made a career out of using his light science-fiction and fantasy stories to examine human nature, from the creative process to childhood longing. So it should come as no surprise that Her takes on a rather outré premise, but the result is his most intimate film to date, a funny and inventive examination on human connection in a world that's becoming increasingly more removed.
Her concerns Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a writer of "hand-written letters" (he speaks, a programs writes for him in the handwriting of the customer) who has recently gone through a divorce. He's depressed and anti-social, the latter coming easy in a near-future Los Angeles where everyone is always plugged into their devices, which are essentially more evolved versions of smartphones consisting of an earpiece and wallet-like interface. When he downloads a new OS that can develop its own personality, that OS becomes Samantha (voice of Scarlett Johansson), whom Theodore has an immediate rapport with. Soon enough, they're in love.
A premise that outlandish - a number of people have dubbed the film "the one where a man falls in love with Siri" - requires a hefty dose of suspension of disbelief. Luckily, just about every aspect of Her completely sells the world of the film. Jonze's vision of the future isn't too far from the present we live in: devices that organize everything for us, with all of our information in one place, and most people huddled into them, hardly having to interact with other human beings. There's a subtlety to the decoration of Theodore's apartment and the costuming choices - finding inspiration in the past rather than "futuristic" duds - that make this future that much more believable. Hoyte Van Hoytema's soft cinematography give the film an almost photographic feel, as if we are looking back at a fond memory.
It's the actors, along with Jonze's rich and intelligent script, that really make the film soar. Phoenix has built a career out of playing volatile, unstable characters, the most recent example being his Freddie Quell in last year's The Master. Here, however, he shows a new vulnerability that he hasn't really been able to express in the past. In his hands, Theodore is a meek, wounded man, unable to come out of his shell - or rather his own head - and it's a remarkably tender performance. Amy Adams, as his best friend Amy, also turns in one of her strongest performances, a beautiful foil for Theodore and providing the film with the necessary connection for Jonze to make his thesis. Johansson, though, is perhaps the most stunning. For a film about a man in love with an operating system to work, the voice of that system has to be affecting and human despite not being, you know, human. And Johansson, a remarkably talented actress who has always been underrated, proves that she is more than capable of the task, inflecting Samantha's voice with rich emotion that helps her and Phoenix completely sell the characters' very real relationship.
Which, ultimately, is what Her strives to examine. This is a film about relationships, how love begins, how it ends, and how we carry on when those ends eventually arrive. And it does so with intimate consideration and hopeful optimism, a genuine belief in our ability to love and recover and find the relationships - romantic or otherwise - that truly matter. For a film that is about a man who, as Theodore's ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) notes, is in love with his computer, Her is achingly, beautifully human. A+