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Connecting with ‘Her’

Joaquin Phoenix navigates technology in search for love

Darleen Ortega | 1/29/2014, 11:59 a.m.
Joaquin Phoenix is a lonely, introverted man looking for love in a world where the lines between personal interaction and intimacy are further blurred by an artificially intelligent operating system. Warner Bros.

The subtle trick that opens "Her" gently prepares you for the complex emotional terrain ahead. Joaquin Phoenix thoughtfully reflects to a loved one, in a tone of utter sincerity, about the meaning of their long relationship. Within successive beats, however, we learn of the relationship's 50-year duration, then that his perspective is female, and then we see a computer producing what he intones into handwritten form. A voice answers a nearby phone -- "beautifulhandwrittenletters.com -- please hold" -- and the camera pans out to several others in a softly-lit office, intoning similarly personal letters.

With this, writer-director Spike Jones deftly signals that the film resides in a world of the not-too-distant future, in which the lines between genuine personal interaction and mechanized communication have further blurred the indicia of intimacy beyond the present world of "sexting" and Twitter and status updates.

What he also conveys is that the film is a safe context for exploring the most existential of questions. What makes communication authentic? Whose voice is speaking when words of appreciation and longing are expressed, in any context? How much must one risk in order to achieve real intimacy?

Phoenix's latter-day Cyrano de Bergerac, the melancholy Theodore Twombly, doesn't display in real life the effusiveness he lavishes on behalf of people he has never met. He lives alone in a future Los Angeles in which quiet trains seem to have overtaken cars and everyone is wearing button-up shirts and high-waisted pants and is murmuring to his or her voice-activated personal device.

Having sunk into isolation since separating from his wife (who we see often in flashbacks), it appears that Theodore's human contact largely consists of anonymous (and creepy) phone sex encounters. Finally, intrigued by a soft-focus advertisement for the world's "first artificially intelligent operating system," Theodore decides to give it a whirl; the ad proclaims, "It’s not just an OS -- it's a consciousness" which functions by intuition.

And so it does. After answering a few unrevealing questions, Theodore meets Samantha, his new OS (lusciously voiced by Scarlett Johanson). She chooses her name in a nanosecond after perusing thousands of prospects, then proceeds to deftly organize Theodore's emails (pausing to laugh at his jokes sprinkled throughout) and peruse his hard drive, with his permission, for other ways to assist him. It's an amusing start to a relationship that soon grows warm and intimate.

Samantha quickly adopts a rather gendered role -- she is a quick study, after all. She cheerfully manages Theodore's responsibilities, encourages him to date, improves his performance in his favorite electronic game, and asserts no emotional needs of her own. It helps that Theodore doesn't have his guard up in the way he likely would with an actual woman (to whom he would be unlikely to offer immediate access to his hard drive).

Somehow this manages not to seem creepy. Director Jones creates a very plausible future world whose links to the present are comfortably clear but that is alien enough to bring mundane relationship struggles into bold relief. Theodore goes on a date with a real woman, at Samantha's urging, and the artificiality and dissembling characteristic of dating is painfully apparent and familiar. In comparison, it makes sense when he responds gratefully to Samantha's attention and when she, eager to learn everything about what it means to be human, seeks out something that feels more like intimacy than what Theodore's experiences with human women have recently offered him.