Director Spike Jonze always makes his viewers think outside the box. “Being John Malkovich” asked us to consider the possibility that one human being could occupy the mind and body of another. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” explored the idea that we could control events before they happen. Now, Jonze offers “Her” – a romantic comedy/drama about a man who falls in love with his computer’s operating system.
You see, in this not-too-distant future (when banded collars, polyester pants and earth shoes apparently have come back into style), users’ personal histories and preferences are programmed into their computers, and then the operating systems verbally communicate with those users. These operating systems not only have human voices, they also learn what makes their users tick, and they grow psychologically as they literally become “best friends” with their users.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Ted, a writer of computerized love letters for those who either have difficulty expressing themselves or are too busy to write letters themselves. Scarlett Johansson is the voice of Samantha, Ted’s operating system. At first, she wakes him up in the morning, reads his e-mails to him (including deleting the junk e-mails on Ted’s voice commands) and reminds him of his appointments. But it doesn’t take long before Samantha is submitting some of Ted’s best work to a prominent publisher. You see, Samantha is more than just a computer that talks to its user; she’s essentially a real person – albeit encompassed within the confines of a computer. And later in the movie, we learn that just about everyone has such an operating system.
The masterful stroke of genius in “Her” is that all this seems perfectly plausible. Phoenix makes a huge departure from his aggressive, boorish character in last year’s “The Master” by playing Ted as a warm and sensitive everyman. He’s going through a divorce but still has feelings for his wife, played (again, against type) by Rooney Mara of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” She plays her character not as some witch, but as a real person who simply fell out of love with her husband. Amy Adams, who never ceases to amaze me, plays Ted’s longtime friend, Aimee, another computer geek type who is also experiencing marital difficulties. As usual, Adams’ character is the smartest in the entire film.
But the real star here is Scarlett Johansson, whom we “see” only through her voice. The academy never recognizes actors for voice work, but consider this: Try telling a story to a friend without using your hands. It’s harder than it sounds. Now try to imagine developing a character, with human thoughts and emotions, whom we cannot see. That’s what Johansson has done here, and we feel like we know Samantha intimately – even though we know she isn’t real.
“Her” is not some strange science fiction picture. It is a very gentle, human story, which proceeds at a comfortably deliberate pace. After each important revelation, Jonze provides enough downtime for events to sink in before moving on to the next event. In this respect, “Her” reminds me of something Blake Edwards might have directed. His pacing was something close to perfect, and Jonze has duplicated that precision here.
My fear is that in the best Oscar season since at least 1975, and quite possibly since 1939, “Her” will be lost in the shuffle. Don’t miss this one. It sounds outlandish, but it’s the best “date” movie out now.