Mopes of the 1970S style are rallying: the fool's parade in American Hustle, Oscar Lewis' acting in Inside Llewyn Davis reflects vintage Elliott Gould. In the serenely romantic Her, Joaquin Phoenix has the brush mustache and spectacles of Gould's frequent buddy in '70s films, George Segal. It's a lovely angle with which to face a near future of an undated year.
Los Angeles (director Spike Jonze digitally merged it with today's Shanghai) has spread up and out. It's crowded but prosperous. Phoenix's Theodore has an unusually nice divorce apartment in the skies at Wilshire Beverly Tower 5. The subways are clean, derelict free; they take you to the beach or to the Palisades. The bullet train is finally pulling out of Union Station to snowy destinations far away. Theodore bounced back from an LA Weekly job to become a love-letter writer at BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, his heart aching as he sits in an office lined with glowing glass panels in shocking pink and citrusy Jell-O colors. Theodore composes little notes for happy couples, and tries to avoid signing the final papers on his divorce. During a walk, he learns of a new OS that's available—a system that is like the super-powered granddaughter of Siri. The bubbling, flirtatious voice on his pocket sized computer calls itself Samantha, it's omniscient yet sensual. Theodore has found a new friend, and more.
There's a 1,000 ways this slip of an idea could have gone wrong. Essential to the success of the romance is Scarlett Johansson's voice acting. I've heard arguments that the chemical side of Johansson is responsible for the critical love Her is getting: that even if you can't see her drastic curves, her plush, breathy voice implies that body's off-screen presence. The old male gaze of the mind's eye, I guess. Could it be that the allure of the actress goes so deep that even her voice is rich with it? The other women in the film can't live up to this invisible imago: Theodore's college pal is played by Amy Adams, with untidy, dandruffy looking hair and no makeup. She's introduced to us foreshortened (in real life Adams is 4 inches shorter than Phoenix, but Jonez poses her so she looks like she's a foot smaller). Olivia Wilde, as Theodore's highly demanding first date, is a classic example of how a woman can be so beautiful that she's almost ugly. Just as Samantha is all voice, Rooney Mara, seen in flashback, is the voiceless, moody ex-wife Theodore can hardly bear to think about.
Her is not a bitter film: Samantha isn't a perfect alternative to other women. Samantha pushes back and withdraws, has flares of temper. At one point she swears at Theodore. The evolution of love rising in this human-like computer program puts an edge in her voice. And this unlikely love story stays believable into a third act as Samantha grows in strength and consciousness.
There's a smooth religious side to Her, smooth enough to be beguiling to an atheist. We get soothed when the film condemns a fanatic, a supporting character takes a religious vow of silence. There's a cameo by Brian Cox as a real life explicator of Northern Californian Buddhism; by accidental coincidence, I'd just been listening to the long dead philosopher on KPFA during my commute. This made me mull over Her's insistence on voices that live on their own. Or, for that matter, how we can fall in love with shadows on screens as if they were alive—and why such phantoms are ultimately not enough.
One of Theodore's paid-for love letters has the phrase, "You were a bright light that woke me up." The film is a gentle if sometimes sexually ardent date film. But there's a subtle metaphor here about love as enlightenment. Jonze's experience in music videos provides for sometimes slick flashbacks, loaded with on-the-button emotion. Still, Her is irresistible with its living, compassionate computers, and its fields of skyscrapers glowing with Pacific light. You sort of ache for wanting it to come true, in the way you ache when you watch Star Trek.
119 MIN.; R