A man falls in love with Samantha, the voice of his computer’s operating system. A sweet premise for a science-fiction romance — though Spike Jonze, who wrote and directed the new film her, says he dreamed up the concept long before Siri made her debut on Apple iPhones in 2011. Siri is a Norwegian word for “beautiful woman who leads you to victory”; Samantha, in the chipper, sultry voice of Scarlett Johansson, has a chance of propelling her to wins on Oscar night.
Since its premiere in Oct. at the New York Film Festival, her has received Best Picture nominations from the Producers Guild of America and the Hollywood Foreign Press Associations — the Golden Globes. It won Best Picture awards from more critics groups than any film except 12 Years a Slave. Jonze dominated the Original Screenplay category among the critics; and Johansson, who is never seen in the movie, took two citations for Best Supporting Actress.
(READ: If Critics Decided the Oscars)
In a recent Microsoft commercial, a Siri-ish voice gets frazzled over the purported superiority of the company’s Surface RT tablets. “This isn’t going to end too well for me is it?” the mock-Siri frets. And finally, in a wistful, hopeful tone: “Do you still think I’m pretty?” We won’t say what fate is in store for the Samantha of her, but the movie has certainly begun well. And Susan Bennett, the middle-aged actress who lent her voice to the Apple OS, joked with CNN that Siri “told me she has always been a little bit jealous of Scarlett Johansson!… She has a very sexy voice!”
Thodore Twombley (Joaquin Phoenix) could use a little sex in his life. Love too. With a heart as big and soft as a Valentine-gift pillow, and bruised from the failure of his marriage to Catherine (Rooney Mara), he composes love notes for strangers to send to their spouses and children; that’s his job at the website BeautfulHandwrittenLetters.com. He might be Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts — the cynical newspaperman consigned to the agony column — except that neither Theodore nor his creator has anything so fashionable as satire in mind.For her is a splendid anachronism: a movie romance that is laugh-and-cry and warm all over, totally sweet and utterly serious. Or, if you will, utterly Siri.
(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 hiphop 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 reimagined as a drug-dealing killer bimbo, 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, and one man’s search for better loving through technology.
(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 has said, “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, romance goes 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 this IT girl 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 SimOne was the invention of a desperate producer. This is science-fiction OS 2.0: the app assistant as dream girl. 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 threw-way.
Johansson, who replaced Samantha Morton as the computer voice after the initial shooting was completed, gives a rendition as intimate and throaty as a k.d. lang 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, toned down from her American Hustle vamp role, here 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 apply Phillip K. Dick’s quote, 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.