Spike Jonze's gentle and weird new movie, Her, is about a man named Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) who wears geeky horn-rim glasses, a mustache and high-waist beltless pants, which, apparently, is the uniform of the near future, when the film takes place. To give you some idea of how eccentric Her is, its titular heroine is played by Scarlett Johansson, who uses neither her face nor her body. Instead, she's the husky voice of a new operating system with which Theodore falls in love.
At heart, Her is a lonely-guy movie. There are some things we all know about lonely guys in movies. They live in apartments alone and work in offices, and they have sensitive souls. Jack Lemmon in The Apartment is the modern prototype: A functionary in an insurance company, he loses himself each night in old movies on television, while eating a TV dinner. In the 1984 film The Lonely Guy, Steve Martin wrote greeting cards; in 500 Days of Summer, Joseph Gordon-Levitt wrote greeting cards as well. In Her, Joaquin Phoenix writes greeting cards of the future – Beautiful Handwritten Letters – which he prepares for people who pay to have someone be sensitive for them.
Some things about this Los Angeles of the future are much better that today: Density has replaced sprawl, so everyone lives in high-rises looking out over other high-rises (many of the exteriors were shot in Shanghai), to the thrum of a trancey aural wash of Arcade Fire music. They walk on elevated walkways and ride a subway system and work in rooms in velvety pastels. Poverty and cars seem relics of the past. In Theodore's underpopulated workplace, everyone is polite and supportive.
At night, Theodore goes home to his spacious condo and plays a 3-D adventure game with a foul-mouthed little avatar who insults him. Then he gets a new phone with a fancy AI upgrade that promises to make his phone also his friend. Her name is Samantha. She jokes and flirts, organizes his life, helps him play video games and talks him to sleep, while asking nothing in return. With a smartphone like that, who really needs a girlfriend?
Even before Samantha, Theodore has experimented with cybersex, which proves it's scary out there, even when you never actually go out: One woman (the voice of Kristen Wiig) wants him to imagine strangling her with a dead cat before she can get off. Dating in the real world isn't much better: Samantha sets him up with a beautiful woman (Olivia Wilde) and everything seems to click – until she becomes domineering, suspicious and angry, all in about three minutes following their first and only goodnight kiss.
As well, Theodore still mourns his failed marriage to Catherine (Rooney Mara), whom he couldn't help when she slipped into a depression, and who has now moved on with her life. Mara appears in flashbacks and one blistering cameo over a divorce-paper signing lunch.
In lieu of a shoulder to cry on, Theodore has a microphone and an earpiece.
"Sometimes I think I've felt everything I'm gonna feel," he tells Samantha. She upgrades attentive listening to full-blown empathy. ("Are these feelings real?" she asks aloud. "Or is it just programming?") They fall in love and go to bed together. Or rather, he does – and she makes encouraging noises. To avoid spoiling the mood, Jonze keeps the screen discreetly black. Soon, Theodore and Samantha are sharing the euphoria of new love. He goes for walks with his camera phone pinned to his shirt pocket, so Samantha can know the world he knows. New love leads to familiarity, jealousy and all those human issues, but without the need for his-and-her sinks.
Other humans occasionally appear: Chris Pratt as the affectionate office manager, Amy Adams as an old college pal, now a game designer and aspiring filmmaker with an unflattering hair mop, who understands Theodore. She lives in a neighbouring apartment with her know-it-all husband, and from the time she first appears onscreen, we suspect that she'll probably be around at the end.
Phoenix, for long scenes, is onscreen by himself, lost in his thoughts and those of the operating system moulded to fit his psyche. With his wounded awkwardness and boyish giggles, he seems authentically vulnerable, but the character's emotionally arrested development also begins to weigh the film down.
Jonze's previous films include such head trips as Being John Malkovich and Adaptation with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, but Her more resembles Kaufman's solipstic fantasy Synecdoche, New York. In its more preciously gloomy moments, it's also a reminder of how Jonze turned Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are from a wild rumpus into a grief therapy session.
In fairness, Her has humour – including a double date on Catalina Island with Theodore, Samantha and a fully human couple that could have come out of Woody Allen's Sleeper. But what really saves it is its probing, uncertain search for meaning: It's an odd, sad love story, combined with a meditation on technology as an accelerator of social loneliness. Not a small part of it seems to be an allegory of lonely guys and their fear of women.
It's no surprise, in the third act, that Samantha grows faster than the emotionally adolescent Theodore does, given her perfect recall, ability to tap any database and speed-of-light intellect. She can also live forever and has the ability to conjure up the late hippie philosopher Alan Watts, who died in 1973. In the end, Her may be the high-tech cousin of She, the female figure at the heart of H. Rider Haggard's 19th-century fantasy (the hero in that story was Horace Holly): She is a mind-reading immortal sorceress who can animate the dead; Her is a soft voice in your earpiece who can do all the same things. The New Age insights in the Jonze script are likely to earn the film a soft spot in a lot of hearts, even when they sound greeting-card trite ("We're only here briefly. And while we're here, I want to allow myself joy"), but the underlying tender creepiness, the yearning and fear, cling like a damp chill.
Her opens in theatres on Dec. 18.