The writer-director Spike Jonze gets beautifully lost in Her. He wrote it as if he were following the voice of his title character, a computer operating system that sounds like a breathy young woman. The “OS” names herself (“itself” feels wrong) “Samantha” and grows more and more human, meaning less and less certain. I’m guessing that when Jonze came up with his high concept — a man falls in love with a sort of thirtieth-generation “Siri” — he couldn’t predict what his “Her” would do. Along with his protagonist, a lonely writer named Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), he watches Samantha wrestle with her new feelings and ideas. He feels her evolving beyond his grasp — like a real person, only in faster and more dizzying increments. The result is a love story both daft and amazingly lucid.
The movie itself must have taken Jonze to places he didn’t expect. It opens as if it’s going to be a grim satire of our social-media-saturated lives and paradoxical isolation. We’re in Los Angeles some decades in the future (the year is unspecified), where Theodore has a job writing cards and letters for other people — intimate, sometimes erotic, based on intuition and empathy. The irony is that he can’t express himself so directly in life. He’s in mourning for a wife (Rooney Mara) who left him for reasons that remain vague — the two simply fell out of synch. (His only recourse is Internet sex with other lonely souls — one, voiced by Kristen Wiig, an epic loon.) Jonze shot exteriors in Shanghai, with its vast, abstracted skyline. The palette isn’t cold or conventionally dystopian — Theodore’s office is a cheerful Candyland—but the architecture has no connection to the people who stroll through faceless plazas gazing into electronic devices, talking to unseen listeners. There are no interpersonal signals. In Stephen Sondheim’s phrase, “it’s a city of strangers.” And its denizens eagerly embrace a new kind of OS, “an intuitive entity” — in the words of an advertisement — “that listens to you and understands you and knows you.”
The actress Samantha Morton was the original voice of Samantha, and replacing her with Scarlett Johansson was obviously a momentous decision. (Morton is credited as an associate producer; at a Q&A I saw, Jonze told the audience that “her DNA” was all over the film.) Perhaps Jonze decided that with Morton the film was too chilly, that he needed a voice that was fully, seductively human. Johansson’s is the least mechanical imaginable. It’s girlish, throaty, slightly cracked—the voice of someone next to you in bed. Does it hurt or help that we can visualize her? I’m not certain. But right from the start she’s a dream mate, especially for a writer. With Theodore’s permission, she analyzes thousands of his e-mails (in less than a second) and dumps all but the 80 or so she identifies as important. She cleans up his mess and then tells him he’s funny. Heaven! Theodore, thirsty for companionship, drinks Samantha in.
It’s hard to imagine someone more affecting than Phoenix in the role. He’s saddled — per Jonze’s notion that fashions recur — with a thick, unshaped mustache that looks like something grown accidentally in a petri dish. But behind his Groucho mask he’s wide open. Phoenix is the kind of actor who, for better or worse, strives to lose his bearings onscreen. I thought he went too far off the edge in The Master, in which his own evident suffering upstaged his character’s. And he didn’t connect with the other actors. But in Her, he’s meant to be all by himself, responding only to a voice, and so the performance is a floating, freeform solipsistic dance. It’s not pure solipsism because Samantha exists, but you might be watching a four-year-old talking to an imaginary friend — it’s that inward.
In a likely nod to Annie Hall, Theodore and Samantha compare notes on people in malls. (She says he’s truly insightful.) They romp through a fair. They picnic with friends who think she’s great company. Scenes that could be just a howl — think Steve Martin canoodling with a jarred brain in The Man With Two Brains — are exhilaratingly romantic. The sex is literally transcendent. It raises the question: Do we even need our bodies? Or is it all in our brains? The relationship is real enough to make us ask what a relationship is and whether the coming so-called singularity — when artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence while humans’ minds will be broadened by machines — will change the way we relate (or don’t) to one another.
For the purposes of the movie, Samantha is. At first she’s upset by what she doesn’t have — a body. “What’s it like to be alive in that room right now?” she asks, wistfully. (She tries to physicalize herself — a failed experiment.) She admits to being jealous when Theodore goes to see his ex-. But Samantha isn’t built to become emotionally mired. She has a spiritual yearning — a need, she says, to read the spaces between the words, to find new realms of communication. And so Theodore watches her almost literally drift away.
Is Jonze reworking his own personal history? In his ex-wife Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (where Coppola’s alter-ego is played by Johansson—a bizarre coincidence?), the husband (a music video director) is oblivious to his wife’s alienation. Her is an admission of that obliviousness and a lament for it. (Proof that Jonze has also evolved: Theodore’s fear that he’s sinking into himself, that everything he experiences will be a lesser version of what he has already experienced. No one who expresses an idea like that has stopped growing.) In Her, Jonze transforms his music-video aesthetic into something magically personal. The montages — silent, flickering inserts of Theodore and his ex-wife recollected in tranquility—are sublime. The soundtrack (songs by Karen O, Arcade Fire, The Breeders, and others) is unusually sensitive to the movement of the psyche. At one point, Samantha composes a piece of music to create a new way of capturing—in lieu of a photo — a wonderful afternoon. She’s doing what Jonze has been trying to do all his life — and what he does, in Her.
Theodore and Samantha aren’t the only show. The computer-game “alien child” that taunts Theodore for being a pussy is a piece of genius. Amy Adams plays a friend called Amy who designs computer games (one determines if you’re a super-mom), and in her spare time tries to capture her mother on video — by shooting the woman asleep, when, Amy says, “we feel most free.” When her husband (Matt Letscher) doesn’t get it (“You should interview her awake”) you know the marriage is doomed. Another woman moves beyond her mate in search of fulfillment.
The first time I saw Her, I was disappointed that Jonze didn’t refer even obliquely to the company that designed the OS and that surely would be looking for all sorts of ways to cross-promote products, invade its users’ privacy, and maximize profits. But that part of the story doesn’t interest him. He’s not primarily a satirist, he’s a romantic transcendentalist. Like Theodore, he’s in mourning for his life, chafing against his limitations. In Her, the prospect of a singularity might not be the end of humanity as we know it. It might be deliverance.
This review first appeared in the December 23, 2013 issue of New York magazine.