In future Los Angeles, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is a lonely man who has had his heart broken. He makes money composing intimate letters for other people. He uses his savings to invest in a personalised computer operating system called Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), who is designed to meet his every requirement. Theodore and Samantha have a fulfilling life together, serving each others needs but over time, their relationship develops and deepens, becoming more complicated that anyone could have predicted.
Dividing the real from the fake is a moral and aesthetic tradition the last century made new. As if to compensate for the techno-elaboration of its forms, Western culture lurched toward realism in the middle of the 20th century, and 'authenticity" took on a premium. Now much of modern life feels bound to the determination of what’s genuine and what isn’t, from the food and culture we consume to the work and relationships we pursue. The Coen brothers explore the beginnings of this idea in Inside Llewyn Davis, their film about the 1960s folk scene that birthed Bob Dylan. Another film set in the recent past, American Hustle, finds two con artists lost in a 1970s, perm and polyester world of their own creation, separated from the truth of their feelings for each other.
"[Phoenix] is perfectly cast as a man of feeling."
Set in the near future, Her, the new film from Spike Jonze, examines on modern terms an enduring authenticity-bound torment: what is love, and how do I know when it’s real? When we meet Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) he is speaking words of love—to his computer. Theodore works for BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, where clients pay him to write letters to their love ones. The letters have an appealing schmaltz but are not handwritten—just designed and printed to look that way. Theodore essentially produces fakeries for a false economy outfit. His world—a putative San Francisco—has a soothing design, ingeniously functional without appearing cold or utilitarian, its coherence a gentle consolation for the divisions of modern life. It’s a world ruled by lifestyle, the idea that comfort and fulfillment depend, finally, on the proper arrangement of our material and technological lives.
Theodore is in the midst of a protracted divorce when he buys a new operating system advertised as a synthetic consciousness, one geared to anticipate and fulfill the user’s every need. 'Tell me about your mother," the OS, named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), asks Theodore. His reply, along with the measure of Theodore’s digital footprint, is all she needs to know. Theodore 'can’t even prioritise between video games and internet porn"; Samantha is programmed to prioritise and even recognise emotion, but reads advice columns because she covets human complications. They bond, and begin to flirt. Samantha turns out to be that perfect girlfriend who is happy watching a grown man play video games all night. Eventually Theodore takes her out into the world, carrying a compact-like device in his front shirt pocket, its camera lens peeping out like a tiny, hungry eyeball.
Its exploration of the nature of Samantha’s consciousness is one of the more interesting aspects of an ambitious script. Jonze might have written a simpler allegory for technology’s role in both assuaging and intensifying human loneliness and done just fine, but Her is most original when it imagines how an artificial intelligence might confront something like romantic love. Samantha can take in all of the information available to man in an instant, including stories of love and romantic attachment, and she begins to enact such an attachment with Theodore, perhaps sensing what he needs. They begin to tell the story of their attachment to each other, and soon Theodore admits it to other people, including his sympathetic neighbour (a wonderful Amy Adams). A disconnected blind date (with Olivia Wilde) confirms the humanness of these projection rituals: Theodore plays the addled divorcé and Wilde treats him like a rescue puppy, a necessary new project.
In the physical world, though, someone might tell you to use less tongue. Theodore’s romance with Samantha is whatever he wants it to be, a romantic story he can create, revise, control. She sees him as he wants to be seen. Samantha and Theodore’s (sometimes cloying) chatter soon turns to how they would touch each other, what sex might be like between them. His desire creates for Samantha, programmed to sound and feel human, what she wants most: the sensation of a physical form.
But is it real? The conclusion, presented early on in Her, is yes, if it feels that way. Samantha feels real to Theodore; he feels cuddled when she describes cuddling him. But is reality really a matter of feeling? And if not then of what does reality consist? The stubborn gap between reality and feeling is perhaps what love—especially romantic love—seeks to efface, with its sense of a shared truth, of the creation, through feeling, of a new and self-contained reality. But these are human pursuits, and Samantha, finally, is both more and less than human.
She develops a taste for love as she knows it—as an algorithm both replicable and pure enigma—and in its final third Her takes impressive risks to play out her side of the story. Samantha becomes more than a projection of Theodore’s loneliness—though she is that, too. At its conclusion, Her might seem simpler than its heady themes and deft handling promise, but what disappointment I felt was a result of Jonze’s flirtation with greatness.
Phoenix is achingly present in a role that relies so singularly on the play of his face. In one tense scene—familiar to anyone who has taken a dreaded, suspected break-up call—that face moves through fear, steeled resentment, regret, and relief like notes sliding under a violin bow. He is perfectly cast as a man of feeling—a man left suspecting that love in this world is a balance of feeling and behavior, a human act requiring human action.