Dir: Spike Jonze. With: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson. 126min. Cert 15
Spike Jonze's relationship comedy is set in a techno-perfect Los Angeles of the near future, a u-topia with the tiniest hint of dys-. Everything tends to be lit with a dreamy, woozy kind of afternoon sunshine and lens flare, in a place where a contented, diverse population mills happily around, rather like a TV ad spot for Apple computers directed by Douglas Coupland. Her is a really distinctive piece of work, which has drawn countless adoring notices and endless gags about Siri, the voice of Apple's iPhone. I wished I liked it more. It is engagingly self-aware and excruciatingly self-conscious, wearing its hipness on its sleeve; it's ingenious and yet remarkably contrived. The film seems very new, but the sentimental ending is as old as the hills. There are some great moments.
Joaquin Phoenix presents an assemblage of quirky character traits as the egregiously named Theodore Twombly, a lonely guy with an unattractive moustache and glasses who wears the high-waisted slacks that have apparently become fashionable for men in this era. He has an entirely unironic job in a company called BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com in a "creative" office space: Theodore composes special-occasion letters for the tongue-tied, the inarticulate and the illiterate, and his firm's state-of-the-art software will print out authentic-looking handwritten drafts of his dictation. Is there a market for such a niche luxury service in the near future? Evidently so, because Theodore lives in a spectacular apartment, and his material comfort does not appear to be affected by a nasty, ongoing divorce from Catherine (Rooney Mara). He's still friendly with his ex-girlfriend Amy (Amy Adams).
Theodore's life changes when his computer gets an entirely new operating system, linked to a smartphone handset with earpiece. It's a hyper-sophisticated artificial intelligence with a female voice called Samantha, played by Scarlett Johansson. Samantha is empowered to organise his life, give personal advice, make intimate suggestions. She sets him up on dates; she reassures him when he worries that he will never feel anything new again. Warm, witty and sensual Samantha seems just as real to Theodore as anyone else in this atomised, digital world. Theodore falls deeply in love with Samantha, and she with him, but she is a mystery, a mystery partly signalled by the title: "her" rather than "she", the object of a man's perception and entranced bafflement.
The film draws distantly on futuristic fantasies like Isaac Asimov's I, Robot, with a molecule of Michael Crichton. Yet Scarlett Johansson clearly approached her role in nothing like the same spirit that Yul Brynner played the cowboy-robot in Westworld, in 1973. There are shades of something gentler, such as Craig Gillespie's Lars and the Real Girl, with Ryan Gosling as the guy who falls in love with a blow-up doll, or Hirokazu Koreeda's Air Doll, in which it is the doll who develops a soul and falls for the guy. Their affair is actually most like a extended, evolved version of something that might have found its way into Woody Allen's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex . . ., although it also aspires to something comparable to Annie Hall.
Yet the movie wouldn't work with conventional comic detachment. Theodore has to be enough of an oddball for the exotic strangeness of the situation to work, but enough of a hunk to sell the love story. He is a Frankensteinian sewing together of two tonal imperatives. It is Samantha who is the plausible and sympathetic character, far more so than the weirdly contorted and contrived creation that is Theodore.
Their relationship comes to a kind of crisis when she, yearning for a physical dimension to their relationship, suggests a "surrogate": a woman she has (somehow) found on the web who is willing to have sex with Theodore on her behalf, with miniature cameras and microphones on her body so Samantha can experience their love to the fullest. Their affair will never be the same again. It is a scene that fuses all the romance and disorientation and absurdity of the situation.
The film unwinds, inevitably, in a sentimental and slightly moralistic way, but it is seductive and subversive when it suggests that their relationship is part of an evolving and re-normalising landscape: a world in which men and women are increasingly having relationships with their "OS" and the stigma is dwindling. Her has the same defiantly wistful manchild regression Jonze showed in his version of Where the Wild Things Are - a singular exercise in imagination, almost a postmodern pastoral.