Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is lonely. You’ve seen guys like him a thousand times on the bus, he never looks ups from his phone, never interacts with anyone else, and you wonder about the state of his life. Going through a messy divorce, Theodore writes intimate letters for other people; from lover to lover, husband to wife, mother to child. Every attempt to feel something, to connect with another human being, leaves him more and more isolated, until he’s alone in his apartment losing an argument with a foul-mouthed character in a videogame.
This is the man at the center of Her, the latest film from Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze. A forlorn sad sack, so desperate for anything that resembles true affection, that when he installs a new operating system, one with a sultry female voice (Scarlett Johansson) and a personality so much greater than what she was simply programmed for, it’s only natural that he falls in love with her. In the relationship that develops, Jonze, who also wrote the script, creates the most complete, believable movie romance of the year.
This is no easy feat considering that not only do the two main characters never appear on screen together, one of them is nothing more than a disembodied voice. But somehow Jonze pulls it off. The more Samantha, as the OS names herself, learns and experiences, the more complex and real she becomes. Johansson, using nothing more than her voice, conveys freshness, an infectious enthusiasm for life that, for a man who wonders if he has already felt everything that he is destined to feel, is completely irresistible.
Ever since the dissolution of his marriage, Theodore has become a part without a whole, and in Samantha, he believes that he has found his other half. The evolution of their relationship, their courtship, is sweet, delicate, and, most important to Her, totally natural. Jonze paints a picture of a near future where, though not entirely normal, this sort of thing is not unheard of. Theodore’s friend Amy (Amy Adams), who you always suspect there could be something more with if not for her turd of a boyfriend, also strikes up a friendship with an OS. Theodore and Samantha even go on double dates with his co-worker Paul (Chris Pratt), and as strange as it initially seems, this situation also plays like any other date.
Apparently not having a body isn’t the barrier you automatically assume. This is the true strength of Her, Jonze’s ability to take a situation that, on the surface, is utterly ridiculous, and, while acknowledging the inherent absurdity, it never for a second rings false. Theodore and Samantha’s relationship is as natural as any other you’ll see onscreen—they cuddle, argue, have sex—though there is always a lingering doubt in your mind. As earnest as the couple seems, you can never shake the feeling that Samantha is, not jobbing him necessarily, but as a program designed to get to know a person and integrate into his life, may be misleading him. Is this real, is he deluding himself, will she outgrow him? You want to believe, and Theodore certainly does, but can’t ever be certain. These are questions you ask yourself in every relationship, are these feelings real, but in this scenario they’re amplified.
Wonderful silences punctuate Her. Wordless montages where Theodore and Samantha, in the form of what is essentially a smart phone, go to the beach and run around like lunatics and do all of the things new couples do when their infatuated with one other, fill out the film. More than anything, these moments, where you only see a couple in love, set the mood for the film. Hopeful, but melancholy, as much as Jonze and company try, you can never see this as anything but doomed.
Her is a sweet, delicate story, that can be emotionally pummeling. Though doubt and questions infuse the film, it never bogs down in depression or sadness. At the core it remains fundamentally optimistic, the best bittersweet romance since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.