Set in the near future, the latest from writer/director Spike Jonze is as much about an unusual love story as an examination of ever evolving technologies which increase the very real chance at something like this occurring. When we first meet Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) he’s a miserable human being. Still not over the impending divorce of his wife (Rooney Mara), and spending every day composing letters and cards for other peoples’ loved ones, Theodore is depressed and very much alone.
His life changes when he decides to purchase a new top-of-the-line operating system which offers him the chance to begin a relationship with a woman he will never meet. Designed to evolve and change like a human being, adapting to those she comes into contact with, Samantha (voiced by an unseen Scarlett Johansson) proves to be just the breath of fresh air Theodore needs. Although there’s no chance of any sort of physical relationship (other than an awkward attempt with a surrogate), Theodore falls completely for Samantha whose love rehabilitates him.
Jonze’s screenplay offers some interesting ideas on the nature of technology and the definition of what a “real” relationship actually is (or could become with the continuing advance of technology). It’s important to note that although his ex-wife is appalled by his new relationship several others including a longtime friend and neighbor (Amy Adams) and co-worker (Chris Pratt) are very supportive of Theodore’s life choice. Although I think it lacks the same kind of emotional warmth as Lars and the Real Girl, Jonze deals with the unusual relationship in the same respectful manner by exploring how it works rather its more obvious limitations.
Given how much of current relationships are conducted over phones, texts, and various social media the step a relationship today to the one we see in Her isn’t all that far-fetched. Jonze’s uses the current state of technology which allows people to have a deeply personal connection while far apart and takes it one-step further by having one member of the affair completely computerized. A variation of stories concerning a fantasy lover or separated lovers tales, the story works because Samantha is at both times real and a fantasy which is always just out of reach, and while the relationship may work on one level there will always be something missing.
Although the exploration of Theodore and Samantha’s relationship is interesting, and I think both actors sell it as about being more than just one man’s loneliness, I’ll admit the movie left me a bit cold. The question has to be asked how reliable a narrator Theodore really is, and whether the Samantha he sees in his mind is actually the same “person” who might interact with others online (something he discovers late in the movie she has been doing quite a bit of). Yes Theodore falls for Samantha but it’s also very much a relationship of convenience for a man too broken to quite put himself out in the dating world (as we see with a partially successfully date with Olivia Wilde‘s character that takes an abruptly bad turn).
In the end the story plays itself out in predictable fashion, quite like 2012’s similarly-themed Ruby Sparks, as it explores the idea of how people change over time – even creations that were initially controlled by the man who loved them. However, the ride proves to be entertaining and despite Theodore’s basic standoffishness you root for the man’s struggle to reclaim his happiness from a marriage which broke him, even if he needs the help of a computerized girlfriend to do it.