Spike Jonze has always been brilliant, but lately he’s become something more. You can see it in the tenderness that pervades both his previous film Where the Wild Things Are and his current film Her, which wasn’t there in his first two movies, Adaptation and Being John Malkovich. Those early works were astonishingly clever, and cleverness is difficult enough to pull off, but real warmth is even harder. Jonze shows both of those in Her, his first movie written entirely on his own and his best one yet.
The film is set in Los Angeles in the near future, where Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) works for a company called Beautifulhandwrittenletters.com. Despite the trauma of his own divorce, he ghostwrites heartfelt romantic missives between spouses and lovers. His life changes when he buys a new product, an operating system for his computer and smartphone with an artificial-intelligence personality that evolves to fit its user’s needs. The OS (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) names herself Samantha, and as Theodore gets to know her, he finds himself falling in love with this, uh, sentient being who can read a book in 0.02 seconds, cracks him up with her jokes, composes piano music when the mood strikes her, and helps him rediscover his sense of joy.
Though Jonze doesn’t place his craftsmanship in the foreground, the craft that goes into his vision here is jaw-dropping. Some of the exteriors were actually shot in Shanghai, a touch that makes near-future Los Angeles look familiar and yet slightly alien. Computers and video games are manipulated without keyboards or controllers, and there are no cars anywhere. The DIY, homespun flavor to the director’s fantasy worlds gives his films great texture — somehow it’s a quintessential Jonzeian touch that Theodore’s smartphone looks like a hinged cigarette case with a dark red leather veneer. Whether his film aims to be polished or scruffy, crystalline or gossamer, Jonze and his creative team (especially cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and composers Arcade Fire) deliver on it.
Smartly, Jonze blacks out the screen the first time Theodore and Samantha have sex — it’s hard to think what he could have filmed that wouldn’t have seemed evasive or ridiculous. The romance’s credibility is a testament to the performances of Phoenix and Johansson, who weren’t even in the same room when delivering their lines. (Jonze had Samantha Morton on the set portraying Samantha’s voice and intended to use her work in the film but replaced her with Johansson at the last minute. Morton is still credited as an associate producer here.) His facial features softened by glasses and a mustache, Phoenix brings a sweetness and humor to the depressive Theodore that we haven’t seen from him before.
Samantha’s insecurity over her lack of a body only makes her more human, as does the fact that neither Johansson nor the filmmakers try to make her sound like a computer. She’s self-aware enough to wonder whether her emotions are merely the result of programming. (“That idea really hurts,” she admits.) Later on, when Theodore grows distant, a painful scene ensues when Samantha tries to save things by engaging a sexual surrogate (Portia Doubleday) to act as her body for Theodore to have sex with. The encounter does not go well, and amid the anguish of the fallout, Samantha says with chilling clarity, “I don’t like who I am right now; I need time to think,” before hanging up on him. Some people still don’t take Johansson seriously as an actor because of the way she looks, but in this role where she never appears onscreen, she does amazing work conveying both Samantha’s early joy in experiencing the world for the first time and her later consciousness, when her capacity to learn quickly from her experiences takes her to a whole other place, away from Theodore.
This movie is fundamentally about how people change within their relationships and occasionally grow apart, and the loneliness at its heart is reflected in the city around Theodore, which is full of people walking around dictating text messages and talking to their phones’ OSs via earpieces. The emotional center of this movie is Theodore’s neighbor Amy (a heartbreaking Amy Adams), who leans heavily on her own OS for emotional support when her marriage crumbles. Amy’s unflattering outfits and unkempt hair reflect her basement levels of self-esteem, but as she claws her way out of a black hole, she recognizes how we all need someone to help us through the tough times, even if that someone is a disembodied voice. It’s fitting that the film’s last shot is of Amy, lit by sunrise and looking gorgeous for once. Moments like this, along with Jonze’s understanding of our need for connection and the transforming power of love, make Her into a work of surpassing beauty.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix. Voice by Scarlett Johansson. Written and directed by Spike Jonze. Rated R.