With a heart as big and soft as a Valentine-gift pillow, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) composes love notes for strangers to send to their spouses and children. That’s his job at the website BeautfulHandwrittenLetters.com and also his therapy. Still bruised from the failure of his marriage to Catherine (Rooney Mara), he needs an outlet for expressing his feelings. So, with photos of a couple from youth to old age as his guide, he dictates a letter for a woman still smitten on her 50th wedding anniversary and signs it, “Love, Loretta.”
Theodore might be Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts — the cynical newspaperman consigned to the agony column — except that neither he nor writer-director Spike Jonze has anything so fashionable as satire in mind. With his new movie her, which has its world premiere tonight as the closing attraction at the New York Film Festival, Jonze creates the splendid anachronism of a movie romance that is laugh-and-cry and warm all over, totally sweet and utterly serious. Or, if you will, utterly Siri. For Theodore’s girlfriend is a computer voice named Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). She’s his “IT” girl.
(READ: Richard Schickel on the Spike Jonze-directed Adaptation.)
Jonze has worn the high-concept mantle ever since he changed his birth name (Adam Spiegel) to a hip-hop variant on Spike Jones, the wily-crazed bandleader of the ’40s. He made his early rep as the skateboarding director of videos for the Beastie Boys and Fatboy Slim, and birthed the Jackass franchise in its MTV and movie incarnations. His first two feature films, Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation. (2002), both from scripts by Charlie Kaufman, went beyond meta into the fictionalizing of Malkovich and author Susan Orlean, whom Kaufman re-imagined as a drug-dealing killer slut, more or less.
Orlean was ready to have her character’s name altered when she met Jonze. “Spike seems really earnest and sincere,” she told TIME’s Joel Stein in 2002. “He’s not trying to be postironic ironic. I got this feeling that this was a very human effort and not an effort to be cool. You feel like, ‘What a nice young man.'” And niceness is the operative mode in her, which shares with Adaptation. only an affectation of title (period in the earlier film, lower case this time). This is a movie about the nicest, prettiest people, and the love and hurt they dish out and take.
(READ: Joel Stein’s profile of Spike Jonze)
In a future Los Angeles so near-Utopian that no scene takes place in a car, the palette is gently muted — not broiling sun burning through corrosive smog but, as Jonze said at today’s press conference, “the colors of Jamba Juice.” (Many of the city’s exteriors were shot in Shanghai.) The people in her take their behavioral cues from the color scheme. Theodore’s friend Amy (Amy Adams) her husband Charles (Chris Pratt), and his coworkers at BeautifulHandwrittenLetters are gentle, tender and affectionate, as if they had majored in the modulations of caring.
Of course, even among perfect people, nobody’s perfect. Marriages sunder and dates go wrong, especially for Theodore. What begins as a great blind date (with Olivia Wilde!) gets complicated when she instructs him in how much tongue to apply while kissing. A late-night phone assignation progresses nicely until the woman on the other end of the line tells Theodore to “Choke me with a dead cat!”. And in the photo album of his memories, he can’t discard snapshots of the departed Catherine, a successful lawyer, whom he’s not quite ready to divorce.
Best-friend Amy wants Theodore to strip the black crape from his heart and get back in the world. “I miss you,” she emails him. “Not the sad, mopey you. The old, fun you.” The “Fun You” is hard to find in a fellow afflicted with the getting-close-to-middle-age blues. “Sometimes I think I’ve felt everything I’m gonna feel,” says this DIY cardiologist. He worries that the future will offer only “lesser versions of what I’ve already felt.”
Wounded by flesh-and-blood women, Theodore needs a female voice designed to soothe and assure. For a man who signs his life with Xs and Os, a woman made of zeroes and ones. “It’s not just an operating system,” he says of Samantha OS. “It’s a conscience.” And it’s not an it; she is her. Among Samantha’s movie predecessors, HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey was the computer as whiny tyrant; the digitized movie star in Andrew Niccol’s S1m0ne was the invention of a desperate producer. This is science-fiction OS 2.0: the app assistant as dream girl. (Jonze says he conceived his film long before Apple came out with Siri.) And never mind that this is a liaison that could end by Theodore’s dropping his smart phone in a full bathtub.
Beyond a conscience, Samantha quickly becomes Theodore’s best pal. She organizes his email, his job, his life; he takes her to the beach, to a mall, giving her the eyes for his favorite experiences. “Are these feelings real,” she wonders, “or is it just programming?” They are real for Theodore, and perhaps also for Samantha; the occasion of their first night of love is so sacred that Jonze lets the screen go dark for the minute or so of its consummation. Afterward, she asks, “Can I watch you sleep again tonight?” Theodore’s reassuring reply: “I’ll dream of you.” Was any postcoital chat more endearing?
The futuristic fun includes two video games — one that Theodore plays by walking his fingers into a forest with an obscene imp, the other a “Perfect Mom” scenario that Amy is working on — and a guest appearance by the late philosophy guru Alan Watts (voiced by Brian Cox). But her is, first and always, a relationship movie that surrounds sad, mopey Theodore with the most attractive women. To start by naming three: Wilde, the dominatrix lurking behind the golden smile; Mara, gamely reprising her role of “Girl Who Breaks Up With a Computer Nerd” in The Social Network; and Portia Doubleday as a living surrogate whom Samantha arranges for a possibly unprecedented three-way.
Johansson, who replaced Samantha Morton as the computer voice after initial shooting was completed, gives a rendition as intimate and throaty as a Patti Page ballad; any Theodore would fall for her, without knowing that she looks like … Scarlett Johansson. She’s seductive and winning whether whispering encouragement to her beau or joining him in self-doubt. “I don’t like who I am right now,” she says, a modern analysand in Wonderland. “I need some time to think.”
Adams, for all her accomplishments (in Junebug, Doubt, Sunshine Cleaning, Julie & Julia, The Fighter, The Master, Trouble With the Curve and Man of Steel), somehow keeps surprising with the variety of her takes on young American womanhood. Here she sports tousled hair and inhabits a role that might have suited Diane Keaton during her Woody Allen years. (The film’s last scene, of two people sitting on a bench, quotes a similar shot of the 59th Street Bridge from the Allen-Keaton Manhattan.) Handed what might be a cliché, Adams makes self-doubt intelligent and adorable. She earns the right to speak the line that encapsulates this movie’s dogged optimism: “We’re only here briefly. And while we’re here, I want to allow myself — joy.”
(READ: Mary Pols on Amy Adams in Sunshine Cleaning)
If you were looking for an actor worth watching for a couple of hours in closeup talking cuddly-dreamy to a computer, you might not immediately think of Phoenix. His bad-boy rep, shown grandly if fictionally in the mock-doc I’m Still Here, could blot out a viewer’s appreciation of his performance, no matter how persuasive. Yet Phoenix slips instantly into Theodore, corralling the dulcet melancholy of a man whose emotional pain finds refuge in Samantha’s embrace, in a love that, to misquote Phillip K. Dick, is “more human than human.”
(READ: Corliss on Joaquin Phoenix in I’m Still Here)
Like Sandra Bullock in Gravity and Robert Redford in All Is Lost, Phoenix must communicate his movie’s meaning and feelings virtually on his own. That he does, with subtle grace and depth. At one point in his bedroom, Samantha asks him, “What’s it like to be alive in that room right now?” Phoenix shows us what it’s like when a mourning heart comes alive — because he loves Her.
And I loved her.