In a somewhat-in-the-future Los Angeles, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a man living in self-imposed isolation since the dissolution of his marriage to Catherine (Rooney Mara), and he seems to grow more numb with each passing day.
Ironically, he is employed as a writer for an online company that composes heartfelt, personalized letters for clients who are incapable of doing it themselves, and he spends his days describing emotions he’s not capable of feeling for people he doesn’t know. At night, he retreats to his apartment to play an immersive video game featuring a foul-mouthed little character that continually insults him. He has few friends — neighbor Amy (Amy Adams), who is trying to bring him out of his shell, and co-worker Paul (Chris Pratt), whose fawning admiration of Theo borders on the creepy.
Something that does pique his curiosity is the introduction of OS1, a state of the art, intuitive operating system. When he installs it on his computer, he is greeted by the voice of the OS (Scarlett Johansson), who names herself Samantha. She explains that she’s programmed to quickly learn the needs and behaviors of her user and respond to them accordingly. It all feels weird to Theo at first, but Samantha’s warmth and sense of humor win him over.
Soon she’s got his digital life organized, and he finds himself increasingly dependent on her, even logging in during the day to check up on her. As his moribund emotions begin to stir, she matches him note for note, and they fall in love. Unashamed, he tells others about his special relationship and is surprised to learn that he’s not the only one. One woman, he’s informed, fell in love with someone else’s OS. Even Amy succumbs, becoming gal pals with her OS1. Unfortunately, as Samantha’s intelligence begins to soar into the stratosphere and her yearning for something bigger increases, Theo faces the grim prospect of being alone once more.
Such a scenario is ready-made for Jonze’s offbeat style (it should be — he wrote it), and it all works brilliantly here. Low-key and melancholy, it’s a wry social commentary whose humor is delivered with a shock of recognition. And it looks great, too. With digitally-added Shanghai locations and Jonze regular K. K. Barrett’s sleek production design, Her’s Los Angeles seems familiar but also alien — ultra-urban, with a vibrant downtown populated by tall, gleaming buildings and a working mass-transit system. Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography gives the cityscapes a subtly futuristic sheen. And what an inspiration to get art-rock darlings Arcade Fire, with whom Jonze has made music videos, to compose the score.
As mentioned, this is Jonze’s debut as sole writer on a feature, and it’s terrific. His characters are fully-developed and authentic — even the voice-only Samantha. More straightforward than his earlier collaborations with Charlie Kaufmann, it’s also more resonant in many ways. The combined sensations of mournfulness and otherworldliness that permeate the film are spellbinding.
In such a personal project as this, the performances are key, and everyone delivers here. I’ve never seen Phoenix in a more sympathetic role, and you can really feel his pain. Johansson is also an inspired choice as Samantha. Her expressive voice is sultry and sweet and pleasantly pitched. Adams’ Amy is a nice character, who seems to be the only other living person he can relate to and who faces the same isolation as he does when her own fiancé walks out.
It was a brilliant idea to make the technology in the film barely more sophisticated than what we have now (it’s still recognizable), and the not-too-distant future setting allows for some striking visuals. It’s as if the town itself and all its occupants have been tamed into submission. This may be Theo’s story, but everyone else on the street is likewise absorbed with their own communication devices in lieu of a real connection with other people.
Her isn’t perfect — it drags a bit in the third act — but it’s nevertheless a bleakly funny and surprisingly human look at our ever-increasing dependence on technology.