So many things could go terribly wrong with Spike Jonze's Her, and it's a small cinematic miracle that nothing does. Jonze's handling of his jump-off premise — a man falling in love with his computer operating system — defies anything movies train viewers to expect from such ripe-for-folly concepts.
Yet in its heart where it matters, Her is also as conventional a movie romance as any. Boy meets girl, who happens to be only a disembodied voice. Boy loses girl. Boy gets something discovered that, in rom-com tradition, was there all along. Jonze melds an improbable future with the ordinary now, creating a next-generation love story that moves in surprising ways.
The future Jonze lays out is nearly now, where people are largely isolated by technology, connected to the world through earbuds linked to their online demands. One such cyber-slave is Theodore Twombly (a wondrous Joaquin Phoenix), who's as nerdy and needy as the name implies. Fresh off a divorce that wasn't his idea, Theodore ghostwrites intimate correspondence for a living at BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, the demand for which is one of Jonze's many subtle melancholies in his movie.
The rollout of a new, sentient operating system tailored to the user's personality stokes Theodore's curiosity, introducing him to Samantha, a virtual personal assistant brilliantly voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Samantha isn't a robot at all; she's a convivial if hyperintelligent presence, programmed to learn and evolve with the user, not unlike what's expected from a lover.
Growing ever human in thought and emotion, Samantha begins performing gestures of affection. Before long boundaries are set and crossed, happy times "together" flourish, and questions about the other's commitment to the relationship settle in. Everything unfolds like romance we've lived through or seen in movies — even first sex, for which Jonze wisely allows the lovers their privacy and morning-after awkwardness. Gradually the chilly futurism Jonze set up melts away, leaving only a timeless love story.
Her is ingeniously understated, with K.K. Barrett's production designs seldom feigning prophecy except for Theodore's immersive 3-D video game, its avatar profanely voiced by Jonze. The most discernible fashion differences are high-waisted slacks and low-slung satchels, with architecture and color schemes (Shanghai often subs for Los Angeles) showing post-ultramodern fade. We're more amused than amazed, making Her all the more convincing.
As a filmmaker, Jonze is always fascinated by love discovered strangely: inside John Malkovich's head, in an orchid thief's swamp shack, and Where the Wild Things Are. Her is no exception, a sneaky-hip parable of human connections becoming less intimate with each new gizmo, set in a future when the hardest thing to reboot is still a broken heart.
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.