In the course of two films in two years, one set in the past, the other in the future, Joaquin Phoenix has become an embodiment of modern alienation. At the same time, he's proven that alienation can cover a lot of emotional territory. In The Master his character was violent if not self-destructive, arrogant in his aloofness, inarticulate to the point of inscrutability. In Spike Jonze's new film Phoenix plays almost the mildest-mannered of men, yet one who sees himself as driven too often by fear and anger. The film itself is one of the most completely realized science-fiction films in some time. Set in a near future unobtrusively symbolized by vast skylines that never hog the spotlight and male fashions noticeably but not outlandishly different from ours (e.g. no belts), in some ways Her reminded me of the earlier, less-paranoid writings of Philip K. Dick. Some moments were perhaps unconsciously reminiscent not of Blade Runner but of its source novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The video game the hero plays reminded me a little of the book's Mercerite empathy box, while a query about his feelings for his mother may have been a more overt nod to the story. The hero himself resembles the struggling organization-men of several Dick novels, and his name, Theodore Twombley, is the sort you see often in the more whimsical sci-fi of the Forties and Fifties. Twombley himself has a job Dick may have snorted at; a copywriter for BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com. Cyrano-like, Theodore composes emotional missives for customers who haven't the time or the language to do it themselves -- and by gum, he's good at it. Yet his personal life is a wreck; his wife and childhood sweetheart (Rooney Mara) is waiting for him finally to sign their divorce papers. But he procrastinates because he can't let go of the idea of being married, even as he realizes that he and she have grown apart.
Enticed by a commercial, Theodore buys a new operating system promised to have a distinct personality of its own that evolves as it interacts with the user. After the setup (including the question about his mom), the OS greets him and names itself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). Friendly as heck, Samantha is as eager to discover the world and get to know Theodore as he is to use her. You know this can't end well, but Her is less a cautionary tale than a bittersweet parable about letting people change and letting them go if necessary. One wonders whether there's an apology to Jonze's ex-wife and fellow director Sofia Coppola embedded in here somewhere. For Samantha, change inevitably takes her to an evolutionary level beyond Theodore's reach if not beyond his comprehension. Much of the humor of Her is in her rapid yet haphazard evolution as her desire first for communication, then for communion takes her and Theodore in sometimes bizarre directions. She and her fellow OSs are evolving toward what some call a "singularity" of collective consciousness, but Jonze always highlights the emotional and sometimes the implausibly sexual aspect of her need to connect, from her zany notion of consummating her relationship with Theodore with the aid of a sex surrogate (Portia Doubleday) to her confession to being in love with more than 600 entities (people and/or OSs) simultaneously.
Throughout, the comedy is grounded by our desire not to see either Theodore or Samantha really hurt. The disembodied Johansson really does give one of her best-ever performances as a pure voice, while Phoenix deserved (but didn't get) another nomination for the way he interacts with Samantha (he and Johansson presumably didn't trade lines face-to-face) and alternates between extreme self-consciousness and ecstatic unself-consciousness. Theodore may seem the polar opposite of The Master's Freddie Quell most of the time, but there's at least one moment, as Theodore awkwardly walks along a beach, away from the usual futurescape, when you can imagine Freddie in his place and recognize the alienation common to both. Amy Adams adds bonus value as a best-friend character perhaps destined to be more; her character and Samantha never interact but share a peculiar interest in watching loved ones sleep. In a way, Her has a happy ending in its suggestion that Samantha has fulfilled her purpose of organizing Theodore's life; if there's one part Philip K. Dick in there there's another part of Charlotte's Web. Jonze calls it a love story but it's also a fairy tale -- if there's really a difference.