Movie review: ‘Her’ is real romance for the technical age

THE NEW YORK TIMESJanuary 10, 2014 

HER

Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore in Spike Jonze’s wonderful new film.

  • HER

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    Rated: R for language, sexual content and brief graphic nudity. Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson. Director: Spike Jonze. Running time: 126 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 22, Edwards 14, Flicks, Village Cinema.

She sounds like the girl next door — young, friendly, eager. For Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), the poetically melancholic hero in “Her,” Spike Jonze’s exquisite new movie, that voice (Scarlett Johansson) is a lifeline to the world, on which he has loosened his hold since separating from his wife.

The voice brightly greets him in the morning and, with a sexy huskiness, bids him good night. The voice organizes his files, gets him out of the house and, unlike some multitasking females, doesn’t complain about juggling her many roles, which makes her ideal, even if she’s also just software.

At once a brilliant conceptual gag and a deeply sincere romance, “Her” is the unlikely yet completely plausible love story about a man who sometimes resembles a machine, and an operating system that very much suggests a living woman.

It’s set in Los Angeles in an unspecified time in the future. The machines haven’t risen, as they have in dystopian tales, but instead have been folded into everyday life.

Theodore learns about the operating system from an advertisement and is soon running it on his home computer and phone. Before long, he and the software, which calls itself Samantha, are exchanging pleasantries, playing the roles of strangers fated to become lovers.

It’s a perfect tale for Jonze, a fabulist whose sense of the absurd informs his more broadly comic endeavors and the straighter if still kinked art-house films he’s directed, such as “Being John Malkovich.”

Written by Jonze, “Her” features plenty of talk and little action, partly because it’s a neo-classic boy-meets-operating-system romance and only one of them has a body.

This is a minor setback as far as the characters are concerned, although only Samantha frets about it. If this profound existential difference doesn’t worry Theodore, it’s because isolation is his default state.

That’s both because of his own life, including his separation from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), and because everyone around him seems more plugged in to their machines than to other people. He has one friend, Amy (Amy Adams), who lives nearby, and talks to only one colleague (Chris Pratt) in the office where he spends his days writing intimate letters for other people.

Samantha saves him from solitude, drawing him out of himself and then into life itself. The role was initially voiced by the British actor Samantha Morton, who, after the movie was shot, was replaced by Johansson and whose casting feels inevitable. Her voice isn’t an especially melodious instrument, but it’s a surprisingly expressive one that slides from squeaky girlishness to a smoky womanliness.

It’s crucial that each time you hear Johansson in “Her,” you can’t help but flash on her lush physicality, too, which helps fill in Samantha and give her a ghostlike presence.

“Her” is even harder to imagine without Phoenix, an actor who excels at exquisite isolation.

This is a movie you want to reach out and caress, about a man who, like everyone else around him in the future, has retreated from other people into a machine world. In “Her,” the great question isn’t whether machines can think, but whether human beings can still feel.

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