In the not-so-distant future of Spike Jonze's hipster heartbreaker, "Her," Americans have it pretty cushy. This is no dystopian "After Earth."
The lonely hero, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), writes letters for a living, crafting affectionate memories out of other people's busy lives for BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com. It's another activity that people have outsourced -- just like the love that's about to enter Theodore's life from a surprising portal.
Theo lives by himself in a beautiful but half-unpacked apartment following his divorce from ex-soul-mate Catherine (Rooney Mara). He's not a happy camper, but he's a very functional one. And then he tries out a new IOS, an intelligent operating system that asks him a few questions and then creates a dream computer generated partner: Samantha (voice of Scarlett Johansson).
Samantha, not surprisingly, listens, really listens. And responds to Theo's needs: She talks to him late into the night, laughing at his jokes and developing her own sense of humor. She's even sexy, something that Johansson pulls off even without a bodacious body to back it up. There are heady early days -- but there’s always a suspicion that this cannot end well.
The idea of a love connection between human and artificially intelligent being is nothing absolutely new. I was just watching an old episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" when a female crew member on the Enterprise turns to the android Data when she's having inter-human relationship troubles. Her feelings turn romantic and Data tries to teach himself how to be a romantic partner. (Hint: It will never last).
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And, yet, writer-director Jonze ("Being John Malkovich," "Where the Wild Things Are") brings a fresh, light touch to the slightly sci-fi material, a fantastic postmodern whimsy that puts him in a club with innovative directors like Wes Anderson.
I have saved the best for last: Phoenix. With his mustache and fair eyes, he has created an endearing romantic leftover that blooms before the camera's eye in the light of his electric love. This may be the most sweetly vulnerable the actor has ever been -- and the most accessible. To see Phoenix put on the orange button-down shirt of a lovelorn office worker following the actor's crazily virtuosic period performance in last year’s “The Master” -- consider the scene of caged-animal rage where he destroyed the toilet in a prison cell -- is to watch an actor of unfathomable range. What can't he do?
Phoenix's Theo is a soulful schlemiel who becomes the vehicle for the universal question: What is this thing called love? Even in a utopia, loneliness exists, and heartbreak. Humans need connection -- and "Her" asks if it is possible for people to substitute computer interaction (role-playing video games, Facebook, even online porn) -- and find fulfillment.
And then Jonze, in the movie’s most original stroke, goes one further and asks: If we create an artificial intelligence capable of learning and loving, how long will it take before our creation outgrows us and moves on into the universe?
Bottom Line: "Her" is the most original rom-com of 2013