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With: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson (voice), Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt, Olivia Wilde, Portia Doubleday, Matt Letscher, Brian Cox (voice), Kristen Wiig (voice)
Written by: Spike Jonze
Directed by: Spike Jonze
MPAA Rating: R for language, sexual content and brief graphic nudity
Running Time: 126
Date: 12/25/2013

Her (2013)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Computer Dating

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Spike Jonze's fourth feature film, and the first based on his own original screenplay, is very simply a masterpiece, a profoundly openhearted exploration of emotional connection.

Her begins with a simple, one-line concept. In the near future, a man falls in love with his female-voiced operating system. This plot could have taken several wrong turns, but Jonze keeps everything on track by focusing on feelings and sensations rather than on tricks.

In another of the movie's amazing achievements, Joaquin Phoenix gives his best-ever performance as Theodore, a professional letter-writer for an internet company that promises beautiful, personal hand-written letters for your loved ones. Phoenix has always been a rather chilly, emotionally guarded actor, but here he opens up for the first time in his career, and it's wonderful.

Theodore just doesn't come together as a person. He has ill-fitting glasses and a moustache that doesn't suit his face. His clothes don't fit quite right, and he seems to be almost imploding when he moves. Yet he's a genius at his job. He writes letters to break the heart, tapping into little details that make people feel as if they've really connected, even though they have employed a service to do so.

When he gets his new operating system, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), he marvels at her efficiency. She seems to be able to anticipate what he wants and needs. They give each other good morning greetings. Before long they simply begin talking. Theodore takes her out on "dates" by slipping his mobile device in his shirt pocket, with a little safety pin stuck through so that the device pokes out the top, so that she can "see." One night they have "sex," and soon... they're in love.

It could be ridiculous, but it happens in such a gradual and organic way that it's totally believable. The movie could have begun using this as a screwball comedy device; how will Theodore hide his relationship from his friends and co-workers? The answer is that he doesn't. It becomes a "thing." People fall in love with their operating systems. Theodore and Samantha even hire a service that's available, wherein a sexy girl (Portia Doubleday) comes to your apartment and pretends to be the body of the operating system, for a night of actual, physical sex.

Of course, such a relationship can't last, but the reasons for the end are far more metaphysical than you might guess. Throughout the movie, characters ask the question, can a human person fall in love with an operating system? Is it real? I won't talk about these details, but Samantha has a little speech about the words on the pages of a book that really struck me, and I think I understood what happened.

The human interactions that juxtapose the one between Theodore and Samantha are just as interesting. Theodore goes on a date with a woman who turns out to be gorgeous and intelligent (Olivia Wilde), and things go well, but then, as they kiss, she begins to direct him and guide him, and finally setting down demands and desires for what their sex life is to look like. Even though they have connected at some level, there are still many more levels to go. It's a lot of work.

Meanwhile, Theodore also plays a video game at home in which a vulgar little creature speaks directly to him, and Theodore speaks back. He also has a phone sex date with a woman (Kirsten Wiig) who has some bizarre sexual fantasies.

He's also friendly with his neighbors, Amy (Amy Adams) and Charles (Matt Letscher), and he actually visits them in person, but he watches helplessly as their relationship erodes. Charles leaves, and Amy becomes involved with an operating system of her own.

Finally, there's Theodore's boss Paul (Chris Pratt), who actually has a flesh-and-blood girlfriend, but insists on double-dating with Theodore and Samantha. They have a picnic, sit on the grass, and talk to the little mobile device as if everything's normal, as if they're just gettin' to know Samantha.

We learn that Theodore is also divorced from a woman Catherine (Rooney Mara) who he absolutely adored, but with whom he couldn't quite make it work. We see her in flashbacks, being playful, sensual, loving, and then distant, troubled. Their nearly wordless relationship is just as difficult to handle as one that consists of only words.

It could be a Charlie Kaufman screenplay, and surely Kaufman must have read Jonze's screenplay and had a little input, but the vision is all Jonze, and it underlines why Kaufman and Jonze had such a compatible sensibility to begin with.

All that remains is to put all this together. The futuristic world of Her seems to have been designed to make people feel closer together without actually getting them together. And people are complicated. Sometimes they don't feel like seeing people and doing things, especially if they're divorced and sensitive. When people do get together, they sometimes don't know how to behave. Operating systems may be complicated, but they're still simpler than real people.

Her would still be an amazing movie if that were all, but then there's the visual design. The entire city, and every single shot, seems to be a combination of something manmade, plastic and artificial, yet combined with something beautiful. How about the shot of poor Theodore, wandering, alone, sitting next to a digital billboard and looking like he's about to get scooped up by an image of a giant owl?

Jonze's filmmaking is so unabashedly beautiful, so unbearably open-hearted, that you just have to open your heart along with it. It might be enough to make a film about the disconnect of humans in the computer age, or about the odd connection between humans and computers, but Her goes so much further. It lengthens and deepens the mystery what love is, and how it happens, and where, and why, and with whom. The movie ends in the open air -- not at a desk or in an apartment -- with some natural light, and two human beings just talking about what has happened to them. There's hope for us all.

Warner Home Video has released a lovely Blu-ray/DVD Combo edition, with excellent picture and sound. Extras may disappoint some, but may very well please fans of this particular film. Filmmaker Lance Bangs made a 24-minute behind-the-scenes featurette that is decidedly different and quite wonderful. Bangs also provides a 15-minute discussion about love in the age of technology. We also get "How Do You Share Your Love with Somebody?," a strange and beautiful montage, assembled over a conversation between Theodore and Samantha.

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