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(2013) (Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson) (R)

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Sci-Fi/Drama: A lonely writer in the not-so-distant future ends up falling in love with his sentient computer operating system.
It's the not-so-distant future and Theodore Twombly (JOAQUIN PHOENIX) is a man living in a skyscraper filled Los Angeles. He works writing letters, love notes and so on for people who don't have the time, means or desire to do so themselves. He's quite good at that, something admired by the company's happy-go-lucky receptionist, Paul (CHRIS PRATT).

But things aren't so good for Theodore on the personal front. His marriage to Catherine (ROONEY MARA) is all but over, with just the divorce papers needing to be signed. His married neighbor friends, Amy (AMY ADAMS) and Charles (MATT LETSCHER), hope he'll find happiness and a new woman in his life, but a phone sex call and unrelated blind date don't go well.

He does, however, find a kindred spirit in his computer's operating system. Named Samantha (voice of SCARLETT JOHANSSON), she's a complex array of programming designed to be sentient, something that allows her to observe Theodore and quickly attempt to solve his problems with the efficiency of a computer but warmth of a real human personality. They find that they're kindred spirits of sorts and eventually begin an unorthodox relationship, including falling in love and having virtual sex.

But like any relationship, the honeymoon phase ends and small issues begin to arise. With that including her continuing to evolve in her mixture of computer and human characteristics and abilities, the future of their romance comes into doubt.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
Ah, love. Beyond being arguably one of the weirdest terms for a zero score in any sport, it can mean any number of things to any number of people. Some love inanimate objects, such as their TVs, cars, beds and such. Others love particular activities like sleeping in, going to the beach or taking a moonlight stroll. Stronger and more complex emotions arise when one talks about loving a pet or friend, with the emotional connection continuing to rise with family members and then, of course, spouses or partners.

Yet, while most animals will reward us with unconditional love, humans don't always act the same way. They'll disappoint us or make us mad to the point that some degree of emotional scar tissue builds up over time with each repeat occurrence. And as the days, months and years pass by, both the participants and relationships evolve, sometimes for the good, but more often than not for some measure of bad.

Accordingly, and with the geometric increases in technology, it isn't that surprising that some people prefer to carry on relationships with others over the Internet in the belief and/or hope that doing so might prevent such disappointment. Of course, one day people will be able to choose and program life-like androids to be the perfect friend and/or lover who will never raise their voice, argue or walk out on them. But that's only in theory since at some point those darn robots will develop a mind of their own, evolve to some higher state, and tire of their human companion.

That's part of the gist of Spike Jonze's "Her," a sci-fi based drama set in the not-too-distant future where Joaquin Phoenix plays a lonely man who ends up falling in love -- and vice-versa -- with his disembodied but sentient computer operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson who, admittedly, would have any red-blooded straight male happy to spend more time with his computer if it sounded like her).

That might sound fairly weird if not goofy and maybe even somewhat creepily kinky, but if there was anyone who could pull it off, it would be Jonze. After all, he convinced us that a boy could sail off to a land of huge creatures and become their king ("Where the Wild Things Are"), a writer could end up writing himself into his own screenplay ("Adaptation") and that a portal could lead directly into the title actor's mind in "Being John Malkovich."

He certainly gets plenty of help from Phoenix who makes us believe such a lonely and slightly nerdy guy could find love elsewhere after a real marriage has failed (to a woman played by Rooney Mara -- mostly seen in flashbacks outside one in person scene later in the film) and other attempts at finding love (through a blind date as well as a "sex chat" encounter online) have similarly derailed.

Jonze (who also wrote the original screenplay) sets the stage and gets the ball rolling from the get-go -- in terms of how people have started to lose the ability to interact with one another on a real level -- as we see Phoenix's character employed as a guy who writes personal love letters, notes and such for those who don't have the ability, time and/or desire to do so themselves. He's quite good at it, but has obviously flubbed that on his own relationship front and thus spends the evening interacting with a foul-tempered and mouthed little computer game character at home, much to the dismay of his real-life neighbor friend (Amy Adams) who wishes he'd find someone to make him happy.

After installing his brand new computer operating system, he quickly realizes he's found a kindred spirit of sorts in "Samantha." After she helps organize his life, the two end up spending ever-increasing amounts of time together, with her seeing him and the world via the camera on his small, smart-phone like device. As she evolves, their relationship goes through the familiar friend to lover curve that many a human has experienced, exacerbated but also somewhat freed by the fact that she has no human form for any real physical contact.

Jonze explores that, the notion of what constitutes love (and how it can morph into new and interesting forms) and what happens when computer operating systems evolve faster than their human counterparts, all with utmost aplomb. The material never feels heavy-handed, and rather than go the satire route that some might be expecting (especially considering the relatively recent advent of online only relationships), the filmmaker offers up a sweet, introspective, sometimes funny and certainly thought-provoking cinematic essay on all of the above.

The futuristic sci-fi elements are subdued and thus come off as realistic and certainly possible, while the similarly subdued score and included songs set up just the right tonal atmosphere to further pull the viewer into this unique tale. While some might not like the related sexual content, that is, for better or worse, part of interpersonal relationships and Jonze more than ably handles such "what if" scenarios.

Probably not for everyone's tastes in that regard or as an overall examination of what love actually is (or even as just a bit of diversionary entertainment), I found "Her" mesmerizing and heartfelt and a terrific example of thought-provoking (rather than laser blasting) sci-fi. It rates as a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed December 30, 2013 / Posted January 3, 2014

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