There has always been a tinge of sadness in the films of Spike Jonze, along with a wide-eyed, childlike wonder about the world around his characters. Her, the first film written solely by the director, is Jonze's most complete work as well as his most measured and emotional.
The setup is so simple, it's a wonder it took this long to see it on screen: In the not-too-distant future, when artificial intelligence allows computers to more accurately predict our wants and needs, a lonely single guy falls in love with his computer's operating system. It's an easy premise to buy for a couple of reasons. Anyone who owns a smartphone realizes it's not a big jump to computers doing more and more for us year to year. Indeed, the "singularity"—the point at which artificial intelligence will theoretically overtake our own ability to control and maybe even understand it—has been clocked by futurists and scientists as roughly 25 years away. Enjoy that, kids.
The second reason you accept the concept of the film is because you meet Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix). Like John Cusack's disheveled mess in Being John Malkovich and Nicolas Cage's embodiment of the writer Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation, Theodore is a terribly sad subject. Following a bad breakup, Theodore has all but withdrawn from society. He goes to work, writing the world's most beautiful on-demand personalized greeting card notes, and then he goes home. On his commute, he commands his music collection to play something somber.
Taken in by the promise of its advertisements, Theodore buys a new operating system, which asks him a handful of personal questions. And before he knows it, there is Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). She is immediately a friendly presence in an otherwise frozen life, and as she learns more about Theodore, which is exactly what she's programmed to do, Samantha becomes his constant companion.
Presaging an era of online communications and relations, social scientist Robert Putnam spelled out in his 2000 book Bowling Alone a number of ways humans have slowly been losing what he calls social capital. It covers everything from disengaging from politics to not joining local civic organizations, and clearly can be extrapolated to nights spent completely on the computer. His theories have been criticized in some circles and recent research says it's not as bad as all that, but—to paraphrase an old Elvis album—50 million World of Warcraft players can't be wrong.
That's the world Theodore lives in, one where he can wake up, put in his earbuds, dictate to a computer at work, follow the same path home, and disappear into a game at night. He's lost his feel for humankind, so, clearly, a computer designed to stimulate him intellectually and cater to his wants and needs is going to create some feelings for him.
Her throws typical human conflict into the relationship between Theodore and Samantha, some of which doesn't work, but stories need drama. Jonze also tempts Theodore through a blind date (Olivia Wilde), a meet-up with his ex-wife (Rooney Mara), and the pleasant friendship with his neighbor (Amy Adams). Theodore is different around each of them, and we see what he doesn't, namely that he's his own worst enemy when it comes to women.
Much has been made of Johansson's contribution to the film (she was excluded from Golden Globe consideration because she doesn't appear on screen), but it's largely just a voiceover job. She was hired to sound like ScarJo, not because she had any particular insight into the human condition. But it is surprising how well her vocal booth performance is when it's paired with Joaquin Phoenix. It must be said, as it has been before, that he is one of the truly unique actors working today. No, he's not Daniel Day-Lewis, but the things Joaquin Phoenix can do well, very few others can.
His performance in last year's The Master was all tied up in knots, but the character wasn't a very believable guy. Theodore is vastly believable and light years more empathetic, and it's the most poetic and elegant work of Phoenix's career. To go from one to the other says a lot about the man who can do both.
Jonze, as he always does, builds a universe for his characters that is not quite real. You're aware it's the land of a story, and you're aware that all of these places—the 13 1/2 floor from Malkovich, the destinations in his adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are—connect somehow in the mind of their creator. He has a distinct and unmistakable view of the world, something most contemporary directors never take the time to explore. For Spike Jonze, it's everything.
You can see that commitment in exhaustive detail in every scene, from the furniture and clothes that heavily mine but slightly distort the mid-20th century to the dreamy, atmospheric music. And everything about it, from the look to the sound to the story to Phoenix's captivating performance, make it an absolutely unshakable film.