Spike Jonze's new film Her certainly has the most frustrating title in recent memory: "Have you seen Her" seems less a conversation starter about the current cinema than an inquiry into the whereabouts of some antecedent-less female. An abducted child, perhaps? But through the (also frustrating) realities of release schedules, Her is only coming out in wide release this weekend after having been screened for critics well over a month ago. So conversations about the movie's title, at this point, are only speculative.
Joaquin Phoenix is Theodore Twombly, a forlorn guy living in Los Angeles in what Jonze has called the "slight" future. Twombly works for a company that produces "handwritten letters" for lovers and family members who have elected to outsource their most intimate emotional business. Men wear pants above the waist in the slight future, and people exist in a state of constant communication with their computers.
Enter OS-whatever, a prototype for an artificially intelligent operating system. Twombly springs for one. It gives itself (herself) the name Samantha and is voiced by Scarlett Johansson in what is improbably one of the more fully realized performances of her career. Very quickly, Twombly falls in love with her.
The film, then, is part indie rom-com love story, in which Twombly and his computer go on dates, get to know each other, and stumble upon what passes for sexual congress between a man and a voice. The other part deals with social backlash: the absurdity of double dates, the awkwardness of admitting to friends and family that one's girlfriend-slash-lover isn't human, the private moral calculations which attend the whole experiment, and censures from Twombly's ex-wife (Rooney Mara), a lawyerly type who sees his relationship as befitting a man who "can't deal with real problems."
And everything is utterly convincing. The scenario looks sort of outrageous on paper, but Phoenix as vulnerable schlub and Johansson as digital presence grasping for shreds of humanity make for, believe it or not, gripping and really quite romantic romance. It's also a delight that Johansson, a gifted actress who (for better or worse) has been celebrated for her voluptuous bod — she was Esquire's "Sexiest Woman Alive" in 2013 — is so marvelous without one (i.e., a voluptuous bod). Her yearnings and confusions as an operating system are way more human than, for instance, the bizarre sexual appetites of the late-night loners with whom Twombly communes for phone sex at the film's outset. The initial resistance (or disgust) one might feel about the relationship is, if not totally obliterated, then at least seriously assessed by the film's final act.
Which ought to be the point. Naturally, relationship problems arise, although they're not the problems you might expect. Twombly's confrontation of and coping with those problems is an excellent resource as we begin to think more deliberately about the healthy and unhealthy ways we engage with technology in the 21st century. As Spike Jonze makes very clear, it's complicated.