Her, the new film written and directed by Spike Jonze, is a post-modern love story founded on an intriguing “what if” conceit. Where 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—written by Jonze’s sometime collaborator Charlie Kaufman—wondered about the implications of erasing one’s memories in order to cope with the pain of loss, Her imagines the possibility of romance between humans and operating systems sentient enough to experience feelings of love and sexual desire. Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson play the film’s unlikely couple, both adrift in a subtly futuristic vision of Los Angeles. Phoenix’s Theodore is a mopey, socially awkward writer who works for a service that drafts and sends personalized “hand-written” letters to customers’ loved ones. Johansson’s Samantha is his “OS,” a highly sophisticated artificial intelligence program tasked primarily with organizing his hard drive and alerting him to important e-mail—a kind of virtual secretary. But as Theodore begins to rely on Samantha for more personal tasks (she counsels him about dating, friends, and a pending divorce), and as she finds herself grappling with the limitations of her consciousness (she’s capable of human thought and emotion, but, lacking a body, is unable to experience physical sensation), their bond becomes curiously intimate.
The film’s premise will no doubt strike some viewers as gimmicky, and others may find themselves allergic to its more cloying moments, as when a besotted Theodore plinks out a love ballad for Samantha on his ukulele. But such scenes are outnumbered by others in which the film’s tone is weirder, funnier, and more profoundly sad. Her succeeds in bringing together a number of disparate film genres: like Eternal Sunshine, it takes a sci-fi premise and maps it onto a romantic comedy that morphs into an existential drama. To its credit, it raises more questions about human nature, technology, love, and relationships than it’s able to answer, so that even after its plot comes to a resolution of sorts it still feels enigmatic. It’s a rare example of a film that ends by opening out instead of shutting down; it knows that it’s dealing with ideas that are too big to finish off. Jonze (and Kaufman) are frequently drawn to messy emotional states, particularly the messiness of love and romance, and that messiness is rendered beautifully here. In spite of their sometimes glaring flaws, their films are commendable for retaining the kinds of jagged edges that less ambitious filmmakers often try to sand down.
That edginess is embodied quite literally by Phoenix, who effectively carries the movie (he’s on-screen almost continuously); his plaintive, searching eyes suggest a man barely holding back vast reserves of emotional pain. He’s gained back much of the weight he lost last year for his role in The Master, but his performance here is similarly raw, cagey, visceral. He’s nicely supported by Johansson, who does first-rate voice work as Samantha, her initially bright, flirty inflection gradually deepening and darkening as she awakens to the complexities of human relationships, and by Amy Adams as Theodore’s long-time confidante, who undergoes an identity crisis of her own. Even as its plot arranges these characters into various couplings, Her uses them to suggest that our journey to understand ourselves is as mysterious and complex as any relationship we will have with one another.